By Alfred Herrera
It seems like every time I pick up the newspaper, there is more bad news—high gas prices, rising unemployment, a growing credit crunch, increasing inflation, global warming and more. I am pleased to report that, in these difficult times, there is some good news too: Northern New Mexico is in the process of shifting from a transportation system almost totally dependent upon private automobiles to one that is more multi-modal and balanced.
The Rail Runner Express will begin service from Santa Fe to Albuquerque in December, and bus service is being expanded throughout the city, county and region. Despite the overwhelming benefits of transit, outgoing Santa Fe County Commissioner Jack Sullivan raised certain questions in this newspaper about a proposed tax to pay for this expanded service [Oct. 15: "The $80 Million Question"].
Before addressing his concerns, let's examine the potential benefits of public transportation, all of which are well documented.
• Save Money: Gas prices recently reached record highs and are still hovering around $3 per gallon. The true cost of driving a car, according to the IRS, is 58.5 cents per mile. Thus, if a person commutes 25 miles in each direction, it costs $29.25 per day to commute, equivalent to $146.25 per week and over $600 per month. By comparison, public transportation is very economical and its use increases one's disposable income.
• Conserve Energy: Private cars are not very energy efficient, especially with the majority of commuters driving solo. Taking public transportation can help conserve our increasingly scarce petroleum reserves. And all those vehicles on the road generate pollution, including greenhouse gases. Public transportation is a much greener alternative.
• Reduce Congestion: Our roads are getting increasingly congested, slowing travel to employment, shopping and recreation. Every bus replaces up to 40 vehicles, freeing up space on our highways.
• Increase Safety: Traffic accidents are one of the leading causes of death in New Mexico, especially among our young people. Public transportation is a safe alternative to driving, especially during wintry weather.
• Increase Mobility: Our younger and older citizens, as well as many persons with disabilities or low incomes, are unable to drive a private vehicle. Public transportation is a way of leveling the playing field to provide access to education, jobs, shopping, health services and recreation for all New Mexicans.
• Support Economic Development: With the high cost of housing in communities like Santa Fe, much of our workforce must commute long distances to their places of employment. Public transportation provides employers with access to a larger workforce and helps grow our economy.
Santa Fe voters will have an opportunity on Nov. 4 to enact a 0.125 cent increase in the gross receipts tax to support regional public transportation. Half of the revenues from the tax would go to help operate the Rail Runner train. The other half of the tax revenues would go to support the operations of the Santa Fe Trails Bus System, to expand bus service into the area around Santa Fe Community College and to improve service to Eldorado, Edgewood, Moriarty, Española and other areas. The Santa Fe Regional Planning Authority (made up of four city councilors and four county commissioners) will decide on final plans for local transit service improvements.
Now what are Commissioner Sullivan's concerns? He says the tax will cost taxpayers over $80 million, but that is over a 15-year period. The actual annual costs to Santa Fe taxpayers would be only $4.5 million per year, which is just 12.5 cents for every $100 spent on taxable items.
Commissioner Sullivan says the tax is regressive and unfairly impacts those least able to pay. In fact, the tax increase will not affect the cost of groceries or medical services.
The commissioner believes the state should pay for all of the cost of operating the Rail Runner. Can we really expect taxpayers in Hobbs or Farmington to pay for a train they will never get to ride?
Mr. Sullivan claims the Regional Transit District (RTD) operating costs are high compared to those of other transit systems. But he is comparing apples to oranges, as the RTD serves rural routes with long distances to cover and small populations, as opposed to shorter urban routes with higher densities.
The commissioner complains that certain bus routes have yet to be implemented by the RTD. But the point of the tax is to raise the funds to open up new routes and to increase the frequency of service.
Mr. Sullivan is afraid that taxes will be raised in the future. But that could only happen if demand for the service continues to grow and both the elected officials and citizens authorize such an increase.
The commissioner says there have been many complaints about service on the RTD Blue Bus. While service was not initially perfect on these new routes, it has greatly improved over time and, at recent public meetings in Eldorado and Edgewood, riders were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the bus service they were receiving. This is further evidenced by a more than doubling of ridership within the first year of operations.
Commissioner Sullivan argues that the bus service should be offered by the city and county instead of the RTD, and that the city and county should not be part of the RTD. This approach has already been rejected by both the city council and county commission, which both recently rejoined the RTD after they considered forming their own transit district.
I hope you will give careful consideration to the proposed transit tax and how it might benefit you and increase the economic prosperity of the northern New Mexico region. And be sure to vote on Nov. 4!