It's all coming around finally. Or is it?
Armed with the city's blessing, private landowners are expected to finish at least 30 percent of the design that would expedite the opening of the Zia Road Rail Runner stop, which was built seven years ago but has sat empty ever since.
And transportation officials are supposedly waiting in the wings to review the engineering plans to make sure they meet state standards, Melissa Dosher, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Department of Transportation, told SFR over the weekend.
It's the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the million-dollar station that would be part of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express. Right now, the Santa Fe area has three stations, but the fourth has been a long time in coming.
Constructed in 2008 at a time when the train service from Albuquerque to Santa Fe was just starting to roll down the tracks, the station has become an empty shell of neglect at the corner of Zia Road and St. Francis Drive. It's a case study in how slow bureaucracies are capable of moving when public and private interests converge and neighbors in the vicinity don't want it in their back yards,
Yet this latest news, that the state’s Rail and Transit Bureau plans to meet with Zia Station LLC to review the design, would indicate that the development is back on track. And the train station, by the way, is just a fraction of it.
In all, the grand scheme envisions a 20-acre mixed development that makes way for all sorts of shops and stores and office space that could fit nicely on the train station's periphery.
But first the developer has to address the obvious essentials: build new sidewalks, improve on the existing ones, put up a chain-link fence and a landscape barrier to protect the public from wandering onto the tracks. Most of all, it has to create a general drop-off area, dubbed the "kiss and ride," where husbands can kiss their wives good-bye, or vice versa, before they catch the train.
Such a concept is considered the least invasive. It's also a compromise to appease neighbors who cried foul at the initial idea of building a full-on parking lot for commuters. Instead, now there will only be one parking spot, and it will be ADA accessible.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the station has been this idea that it will create major traffic jams in the southern part of the city, in one of the more heavily traveled corridors.
To date, tens of thousands of dollars have been spent on studies to determine how the station, when fully operating, would impact traffic.
But now comes an even greater disincentive: The future of the train service itself could be called into question. According to the Albuquerque Journal a few months ago, the state is spending more money to operate the service than the revenues generated from it. Not uncommon for mass transit, but it makes the program vulnerable in a climate of austerity.
Merritt Brown, who represents the development company, joked, "Show me a form of public transportation that has made money, and I'll be stunned."
In early June, the Santa Fe City Council granted the development company a $300,000 impact fee credit. Under the agreement forged, the developers would pay up to that amount for the necessary public improvements, and the city wouldn't be responsible for any of the costs.
But as the entire development unfolds, the city plans to credit the company that sum of money as it applies to fees for the impact that the development will have on the surrounding roads and other public property.
The council voted unanimously for it. Mayor Javier Gonzales wasn't present; he was in New York City. And City Councilor Patti Bushee abstained from voting at the June 10 meeting, saying she needed more information. The credit set the stage for the design, and Brown said this first phase of the design could cost developers as little as $150,000, up to the maximum $300,000.
Only time will tell.
"We're going to be doing some pretty extensive stuff," he said. "We're talking about a good chunk of public improvements."
Yet the low-maintenance design could still lend itself to another problem: namely, people stopping in the middle of Zia Road or St. Francis Drive to let passengers out as they run to catch the approaching train. And that could cause all sorts of congestion problems.
It was a scenario that the transportation department foresaw and then mentioned in a letter to the city last year in May, calling for "No Stopping/No Parking" signs to prevent such a spectacle.
In all, it took an entire year for Santa Fe City Manager Brian Snyder to respond to NMDOT, which came on May 19. He said the delay was due to the city waiting for the outcome of traffic studies, which concluded that the intersection, which is prone to backups during peak times, won't have new "prolonged delays."
Snyder wrote, "The conclusion of the study was that there was no consistent pattern of vehicle delays caused by the train stopping...Additionally there were no prolonged periods of traffic delays observed following a train stopping at the station."
The study also noted that the delays are likely to be related to the timing of a train's arrival within the already complicated traffic signal cycle.
Since as far back as 2011, councilors have questioned the validity of the station in the greater scheme of transportation between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Matthew Ortiz noted years ago how the train cars were empty as they traveled by his house.
But if news coming out of the NMDOT is any indicator, then it would appear that this time around, the city and the state and the developers are serious.