State studies whether Rail Runner is worth cost

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – The New Mexico Rail Runner costs a lot more money to run than it makes. So, should the state just sell it? It’s a question the state Department of Transportation is looking into.

At least one lawmaker believes the state should get rid of it, and replace it with more buses.

Thousands of people use the Rail Runner every day. “It saves me $200 a month in gas, at least,” said Bob Porter. “There’s no stress, you get on the train, you talk to friends.”

Five days a week, Porter takes the rail from Albuquerque to Los Lunas to get home from work. “It cost me $14 a month,” he told KRQE News 13. He’s used the train since it started running, nine years ago.

The price is good for Porter, but it doesn’t do much for the state.

Last year, the train made $2.8 million on fares, while the cost to operate the Rail Runner was $28.4 million. Plus, the department estimates the total debt repayment over 20 years amounts to $784 million.

“At some point we’ve got to decide, we’ve got a lemon car, we’re bleeding in payments, and just you know, give it up and take the loss,” Republican State Representative Bill Rehm told KRQE News 13.

Rehm sponsored a memorial which passed in the recent legislative session. He asked the NMDOT to study the long-term cost of the Rail Runner to see if it’s worth keeping, or possibly selling. “We need a lot more people riding it to make it worth while,” said Rehm.

However, Rail Runner Communications Manager, Augusta Meyers, said focusing on the money made from fare rates is not the big picture. “It wasn’t built to pay for itself, it was built to give people in central New Mexico options,” Meyers explained.

She said no public transit system makes money, and compares the state’s debt to paying off a home mortgage.

“The debt when you look at it, yes it’s an alarming figure, but it is what it is, it’s always been that way,” Meyers told KRQE News 13. “It’s going to cost you more in the long run, but that’s how we get public projects built.”

She said operation costs for the Rail Runner are paid with federal money, track usage fees and a voter-approved tax in four counties. Meyers said ridership makes up a small portion of Rail Runner funding.

While the state may re-think the rail, people like Porter rely on it for now. “I hope it stays,” Porter said.

Rates for the train are some of the lowest in the country. The average fare is $2.47, compared with the average trip length of 40.7 miles. That adds up to 6 cents per passenger mile.

Meyers said they want to keep the Rail Runner affordable, and have no plans to raise rates at this point.

On top of operating costs, the state pays about $28 million a year in debt for the train until 2024. Then, in 2025 and 2026, the state will have to pay $112 million in balloon payments.

“I am very concerned what we’re going to do with that because at this time, the state is not saving money towards a payment of those balloon payments,” Rehm explained. “When we get to 2025, and 2026, we’re going to have a problem.”

He said he wants the study done to educate new legislators about the Rail Runner costs, to better plan for the future.

Meyers assured the Rail Runner isn’t going away any time soon.

The idea to sell the Rail Runner wasn’t the only proposal to sell off a major New Mexico investment this legislative session. Senator George Muñoz introduced a bill to unload the $220 million, mostly-vacant Spaceport America, but it died in committee. Earlier this week, KRQE News 13 investigative reporter Larry Barker showed viewers why the Spaceport is losing about $500,000 each year.

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