Every day in Santa Fe, the Rail Runner Express passes Zia Road and St. Francis Drive with an unfulfilled promise. It's where the train doesn't stop, even though a train station sits there unused.
In late 2007, the Metropolitan Planning Organization announced that Zia and St. Francis would be one of the Santa Fe-area stops for the state's new passenger trains. But when the trains began running between Albuquerque and the capital city a year later, the stop was not on the schedule.
The benches and loading platform are caged by a fence bearing a sign that reads "Station Closed. Rail Runner Trains Do Not Stop Here." The head of the Rail Runner's mascot, the road runner, peers from the top left side of the sign.
Trains have been chugging past the Southside station for nearly five years. But a new study from the Department of Transportation could mean the waiting is almost over.
Developer Merritt Brown's firm, SF Brown Inc., is partner in Zia Station LLC, which owns the land where the train station sits. In 2005, his firm purchased an obnoxious pumice plant that had been on the property for about 40 years. The plant was demolished two years later. Brown and partners began lobbying local elected officials and train planners to choose the site for a train station as a public-private partnership. When the state paid to build the station, the firm had ambitious plans for the land surrounding it, including a large commercial and retail area and a 30-car parking lot along with some kind of building to serve train passengers.
None of those plans have materialized.
"We've just had a series of delays after delays so we've never really formally submitted anything," Brown says of his plans for the lot.
Residents in the adjacent Candlelight Neighborhood banded together to oppose the firm's plans, citing traffic and safety concerns. Some in Candlelight opposed opening the train station altogether. Others supported the station but didn't want the mixed-use development proposed by Brown's firm. Many agreed the traffic problem needed to be solved before moving forward.
"There's really no place that we see that would be a drop off point that would not add congestion to the neighborhood," says Barbara Levin, president of the Candlelight Neighborhood Association.
After a few years of slow motion, the city asked the state to begin using the station as a "kiss and ride" point with no parking or other immediate development.
Then, the state threw a wrench in the works again.
In the 2012 legislative session, state Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, sponsored a memorial for a state Department of Transportation traffic study on the area. It passed the Legislature unanimously. Rodriguez tells SFR that she's received calls and emails from constituents about traffic safety concerns at the intersection, but she says she hasn't received any complaints about the train station being unused. An April 11, 2012 letter from DOT Secretary Alvin Dominguez told then Santa Fe City Manager Robert Romero that, because of the memorial, DOT would defer Romero's request that it open the station "until after this traffic study is completed."
That time appears to be growing near.
Contract consultants with Parsons Brinckerhoff gave DOT their report on Nov. 18, department spokeswoman Melissa Dosher writes to SFR. The study analyzed the intersection of Zia and St. Francis now and 20 years into the future, including signal timing, "particularly in relation to the NMRX." She adds that it explores what will happen in the intersection once the Zia Station is in operation, compares operational and safety efficiency of the intersection with and without the train station in operation and explores bicycle and pedestrian functions at the intersection. The study cost $55,000, she writes.
DOT wouldn't release the findings of the study yet, however.
Dosher says department staff will spend the next week and a half making internal comments on the study and it will be released following comments from stakeholders, including the railroad, the city of Santa Fe, Santa Fe County, the Santa Fe Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the local DOT general office.
"It will then go back to the NMDOT for review before the final outcome is determined," she writes, noting that the study is expected to be official "by the end of the year."
The developers say the train station should be a city-wide concern because it would help reduce Santa Feans' use of vehicles through taking advantage of alternate modes of transportation.
Neighborhood resident Ted Varney agrees with that assessment. A self-described progressive libertarian, Varney rides an electric bicycle around town and hopes that society can fight concentrated, moneyed interests like the oil and gas lobby through sustainable transportation practices.
Varney, a Santa Fe resident for some 20 years, lives nearby on the 2300 block of Calle Luminoso. "The train really doesn't bother me, you know, especially since they stopped blowing that damned horn," he says of the Rail Runner. "But that was several years ago since they've stopped doing that. This is not 1900, you know. The urban encroachment some people seem to have a problem with—to me it's very much needed."
Varney, 67, jokes that his driver's license will be soon taken away. He would "love to be able to walk over there, get on the train, go downtown."
The concerns Varney has heard from his neighbors do not necessarily rest in the opening of the train station but rather, he says, they rest in what officials are going to do about the intersection at St. Francis Drive and Zia Road, and its close proximity to Galisteo Road, the main point of access to his neighborhood.
It's difficult to turn either way onto Zia from Galisteo during drive-time traffic hours because of the congestion caused by the Zia-St. Francis intersection. Vehicles line up for blocks on Zia waiting to drive northbound and southbound on St. Francis in mornings and evenings.
And Galisteo itself can get traffic from drivers looking for a shortcut to Rodeo Road, a main thoroughfare for southeastern Santa Fe.
"That's been a failed intersection for years because of the traffic coming off of Galisteo and Zia and onto St. Francis Drive," says City Councilor Bill Dimas, who represents council District 4, where the intersection is located. He adds that he's been waiting for the Department of Transportation's traffic study on the area to formulate an opinion on the development project.
The traffic is the main reason why Candlelight residents—trapped, sometimes, by this congestion—might oppose a high-density development that had been previously proposed, says Varney.
"In drive-time, morning and evening, it can be a nightmare," he says of turning onto Zia from Galisteo. "It can be a long, long wait. So until the intersection is dealt with I don't think people would be willing to support any kind of, you know, high-density development."
From Brown's perspective, he says his firm has been waiting for the train station to be open before formally crafting a development plan. Once that happens, he says, his firm will start another discussion with area residents about that plan.
Until then, he says, "We're kind of stuck."