End of the Line for the Richardson Express?

The Rail Runner is a growing burden on New Mexico’s budget. In a recent story in the Albuquerque Journal we learned that the state takes in $2.8 million from fares and costs an astonishing $28.4 million annually just to operate. Then there’s the $784 million in debt that must be repaid over the next 20 years. The annual operating costs, by the way, can be saved by simply mothballing the train while the $784 million will come due no matter what thanks to the “unique” way in which Richardson set up the capital outlays to fund this boondoggle. Of course the Legislature is also to blame for going along with this scheme.

It is true, as mass transit advocates claim that transit systems rarely cover their operating costs (perhaps that is an indicator that current transit models don’t work?). However, according to the authorities at Wikipedia, no transit system in the world had a farebox recovery ratio of 10 percent or less (the Rail Runner’s is just less than 10%). It is no surprise, based on this terrible performance, that Coyote Blog called the Rail Runner “The worst American Rail Project Ever” back in 2012.

We at the Rio Grande Foundation have been calling the Rail Runner a boondoggle from the beginning. In fact, we urged Gov. Martinez to shut the train down back in 2011. Perhaps we were ahead of our time, but shutting the train down is no longer a “fringe” viewpoint. Clifford Winston, a transportation expert at the center-left Brookings Institute, recently was quoted by the Albuquerque Journal saying, “In a state like New Mexico with low population density, it’s questionable whether a train is worth the cost…If it is socially undesirable, then cut your losses and no longer incur the cost … and try to recover the capital that you can and walk away.”

It would seem to me that our policymakers must make the tough but obvious choice to shut the train down now and to use the funds saved either to improve New Mexico’s roads or to pay down some of the debt on the train.

Oh, and lest you think that the Rail Runner is “catching on,” ridership is on a slow, steady decline.