Between the fusillades of scathing ad hominem attacks by the state’s gubernatorial candidates, one agreement has been made: the New Mexico Rail Runner needs to be re-examined.
At least in car country, the train is easily seen as a charity case: Its annual operating expenses are more than $24 million, and it earns only approximately $3 million from fares.
Both Diane Denish and Susana Martinez have promised to take a serious look at the Rail Runner’s operations. In an emailed statement to SFR, Denish says:
“I would immediately undertake a review of how the RailRunner is being used to make sure its schedule and rate structure are optimized for maximum ridership, and I would allow for the sale of advertising space on RailRunner trains as an additional source of revenue. Additionally, I would push to make sure that the RailRunner was being better used and marketed for special events and tourist activities.”
Martinez’ campaign did not respond to calls. But in a Sept. 24 article in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Martinez echoes Denish’s promises: “We need to explore how the train can become more of a self-sustaining operation and less reliant on taxpayer dollars.”
Martinez doesn’t elaborate on how that self-reliance would occur.
“They’re doing what they have to do to get elected, but reality will set in on Nov. 3,” State Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, says. Varela chairs the Legislative Finance Committee, which helps manage the Rail Runner’s finances. Varela says he’s not sure what would have to happen to increase fare revenues, but “I’m open to any ideas.”
Aside from initiatives to increase ridership and improve advertising dollars (which rarely account for a substantial portion of revenues), two possibilities remain: Raising fares and cutting service.
But public transportation advocates see several fallacies in criticisms of the Rail Runner. For one, trains are generally not expected to fully support themselves.
And, in the Rail Runner’s case, it’s a new endeavor embedded in a small, highly car-centric market, where use of public transportation isn’t standard and where there simply aren’t as many riders. In that context, its small 12.5 percent ratio of fares to expenses ($3 million in fares to $24 million in expenses) might not be best compared to more self-sufficient transportation centers in dense metropolitan areas such as New York and Philadelphia, which pull in half their own weight.
“If you’re a new line, which the Rail Runner is, you’re still building ridership,” Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association, says. “So, in a way, what I want to suggest is it’s a little unfair to compare them against a really long-established commuter rail system that’s been around for quite a while.”
Since the train began in 2007, ridership has more than doubled, from nearly 500,000 rides in 2007 to 1.2 million in 2010, and is up 32,000 from last year.
Compared to systems such as the Utah Transit Authority’s commuter rail, which has a 14.8 percent ratio, and Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s system, 8.1, the Rail Runner is on roughly equal footing.
But criticisms of the Rail Runner may also stem from lack of information.
“I think there are some major misunderstandings of how the operation of the Rail Runner is funded,” Chris Blewett, director of transportation and planning for the Mid-Region Council of Governments, which helps oversee the Rail Runner, says. “I hear crazy stuff all the time, like it’s costing the state $40 million a year, and it’s simply not true.”
Furthermore, criticisms of the train fail to consider the amount of money spent on highways, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter Chairman John Buscher says.
“Frequently, it’s not taken into account how large the subsidies are it takes to support those and what it costs to make new ones,” he says. “And having the Rail Runner in place will save a lot of money in improving the corridor of I-25 between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.”
Since its inception, the Rail Runner’s fare costs have stayed steady, and only a few services have been eliminated. Blewett says there are no current plans to reduce service any further or to raise fares.
As for Denish’s plan to introduce advertising, that initiative began this fiscal year. Out of the $24 million in expenses, advertising is only expected to bring in $200,000.