Free market transportation expert Randal O’Toole, a regular speaker at Rio Grande Foundation events, has taken a detailed look at a recent report put out by the New Mexico Legislature dealing with the Rail Runner. He has some important comments on the train which remains a costly boondoggle.
Among the salient points he made:
1) The state report estimates that the train has “about 1,200 regular commuters,” which would account for 2,400 of those trips, and the rest are people who “take the train for leisure and tourism, school, and other business and personal appointments.” With average fares of about $2.50 and average costs of about $35 per trip, the rail line costs about $15,000 a year per daily commuter, not counting capital costs.
2) The LFC report reveals that many of the communities along the rail line have zoned land for transit-oriented development, none has come about except in Santa Fe, and even there the development is minimal and required tens of millions of dollars in public subsidies.
New Mexico is going through the same process that took place in Portland and other cities that built obsolete rail transit systems. First, they zoned land for development along the rail lines, expecting people would be so eager to live near the train that developers would happily build high-density housing with no parking. Then, when no development took place, they start subsidizing it. So we have subsidized trains meant to generated development that has to be subsidized to get people who might ride the trains.
3) The legislative finance committee report was written by a team of more than a dozen people, at least four of whom have PhDs in something or other and one of whom signs his name “esquire.” All that intelligence and yet the report failed to even consider the least-expensive option, which would be to shut down the train, sell the equipment and any associated real estate, and use the proceeds to pay off as much of the loan as possible.