Thursday, December 22, 2005

With a Heave and a Ho: Rail Runner, Final Chapter

Yesterday I mentioned that today I would be writing the definitive word on both commuter rail ("Rail Runner") and light rail in ABQ ("Rapid Transit Project"). Since I tend toward "Das Kapital" length combined with Mad Magazine depth, I'll try to corral the loquaciousness and let loose a few actual facts at least.

Rail Runner and Devilish Details

The relatively easy to implement Phase I of Rail Runner is supposed to start service in March, 2006 or so. Basically, all this took was spending $75 million on some underutilized, already existing BNSF rail lines and $35 million for five locomotives and rail cars. Given the perceived flush condition of New Mexico finances, dropping $110 milion on a Holiday present like this doesn't seem totally out of line.

Oh, but the devil is in the details. Above is an ornithographic photo of the proposed "Rio Bravo/Airport"station from the Mid-Region Council of Governments. For those familiar with the area, the proposed station is north of Rio Bravo on 2nd Street, basically across from the Giant gas station.

I spoke with a very nice guy named Tony Sylvester from the MRCOG the other day and asked about this station. He said there were some delays in obtaining the land from the developer and that the station was on hold until this snag was unsnagged. We talked about other options, such as putting the station across on the South side of Rio Bravo (where the designated bike path runs) and he said that had been investigated but wouldn't work. So to sum things up I asked him what this all meant. He said that if the parcel wasn't sold to the project, the station just wouldn't be built. A "Rio Bravo/Airport" Station wouldn't exist.

To use the blog/internet parlance: WTF? Yes, I realize that the "Rio Bravo/Airport" Station is just a minor part of a Belen to Bernalillo train run. Still, take a gander at the many stations scheduled to be built along Phase I. What is the status of these stations? What's the point of having a train if you don't have completed stations with park-n-rides in place? ABQ and environs may be one of the least pedestrian-friendly areas in the entire world...are we suggesting that folks walk to these nascent stations/platforms located along railroad tracks?

I was directed by MRCOG staff to a December 11th ABQ Journal story (sorry, $ required) about station/platform construction. Frankly, reading this story is more like reading a press release from the MRCOG office. What missing is a simple table with the following:

  • Station
  • Station Date Opening
  • ParknRide Upon Opening (yes/no)
  • ParknRide spaces available
What we need is less Lawrence Rael proselytizing the wonders of mass transit and more information on what's going on with Rail Runner.

What Do the Details Mean?

One might rightly ask at this point: "Scot, what's with the ranting/raving? Any new service has unknowns! Any new service has bugs! What's the big deal?"

Well, the big deal is this. As someone very interested in living in an ABQ and environs with a real full-fledged, rail-inclusive mass transit system, the kick-off of Rail Runner is absolutely vital. Public perception of how this thing gets off the ground is essential if we are then to take the much more expensive steps of Phase II commuter rail to Santa Fe (which we all know is going to cost much more than the initial outlays made during this oil/gas windfall spending frenzy) and light rail in ABQ proper. If we can't do this very first thing right, there won't be a chance in hell of getting the next things at all.

Right now, in the political haste to just get the damn thing started, Rail Runner is getting us off on a very wrong foot. Missteps have already happened with the repeatedly delayed start of operations. Now promises of stations and service are being made that will have to be further delayed, in cases like South Valley service delayed indefinitely.

The upshot is that this hurriedness leads to perception of Rail Runner as some half-assed political ploy dreamed up by Big Bill as he loads his suitcase for Washington. When glorious pictures and stories of Rail Runner's gala inaugural ride are soon replaced with stories about continued station construction delays, critics will not only paint Big Bill and other politicos as inefficient, overzealous losers...they will be able to paint rail-inclusive mass transit with the same brush.

In the final analysis, it's hard not to disagree with Big Bill, who was quoted in an ABQ Journal story as saying Rail Runner "will change the face of transportation in New Mexico forever." Frankly, Rail Runner in itself doesn't really matter that much. Without connecting East-West rail services in ABQ, the $390 million and rising Rail Runner service is just a few choo-choos delivering a few folks to and from Belen and Santa Fe. Without integration into a large regional bus/rail transportation authority ( the narrator says about Citizen Kane's Xanadu "no man can say"), Rail Runner service to Santa Fe might as well be the steam train from Chama to Antonito, Santa Fe tourist style.

What Rail Runner serves as is a calling card, a sales pitch to the larger mass transit system the area will need by 2025. Right now the underlying sales tools for making a huge investment in mass transit aren't there: our traffic isn't bad enough, our air not quite smoggy enough, the cost of gas not quite high enough. As such, Rail Runner's public relations sales job as an efficient, well-organized legitimate service is even more important. Given the delays and station uncertainty (as well as pricing and other nagging details), Rail Runner certainly isn't getting off to an impeccable start. And an impeccable start and continued operation is vital if Rail Runner is every going to be more than just a few choo-choos running a sparse set of commuters and tourists around at a ridiculous cost per passenger mile.

As to predicting what is going to happen, using my "Das Kapital" reference as an excuse, I believe Marx himself was loathe to guess the future. And I'm no Karl Marx. I'm also not one of those people who just thinks mass transit is stupid, trains outdated, and improved roads terribly important. Hell, I WANT gas to be $5.50 a gallon. I also know that I live in an area where my sentiment is in the minority. As such, and having looked at Rail Runner and other transit ideas, I'm gonna guess the following:

  • Spring 2006: Rail Runner starts off and is generally lauded in that Downtown Action Team sort of way with lots of rah-rah.
  • Summer 2006: Ridership healthy; life good.
  • Fall 2006: Some of the stations get finished and there is much rejoicing, but news get out that some stations will have much longer delays or will have to be scrapped altogether.
  • Winter/Spring 2006/2007: Ridership flattens, and then starts decreasing.
  • Spring/Summer 2007: Phase II encounters a few more snags; Big Bill spending more time in Manchester and Des Moines than Santa Fe.
  • Fall 2007: Plans for Phase II are "temporarily" scrapped due to delays and cost increases.
  • 2002: Continued publication date of the Rapid Transit Project webpage at the city's ABQ Ride website. Site is never updated due to lack of interest and the bad-taste left in the collective public mouth by Rail Runner.


Michelle Meaders said...

I thought the Rail Runner route also needed signals installed, but that seldom gets mentioned. I also haven't seen estimates of how long it should take to bid and build a station once the approval is given. Or of how fast the train is supposed to travel. Also, are there road crossings to upgrade?

Michelle Meaders said...

Why dowsn't anybody talk about the commuter buses that already go from Albuquerque to Santa Fe and points north (Los Alamos, Espanola, Las Vegas?) For $2 each leg ($60/month pass), you can take a nice motorcoach from a park-and-ride to work.

By the way, the shuttles from the ABQ airport to Santa Fe(which use vans and small buses) cost $20 or $25 each way. TMNO's website says it charges $10 from Albuq. to Santa Fe.

Scott said...

I had no idea that a project like this was in development. I'm glad I stumbled across your site!