Paseo del Norte Has Proven itself; Rail Runner Won’t

The Albuquerque Journal recently ran a front page story (subscription required) on the 20th anniversary of the completion of Paseo del Norte. There is a lot of interesting information in the article, especially for those who were too young to remember or were not around for the debate over the road.
One of the most interesting parts of the story was that the cost of constructing the section from Coors to 2nd Street totaled $46 million in 1987. Adjusting for inflation, that figure would be $85 million for a section of road that now carries 85,400 cars daily. This number is nearly triple the number of daily trips that were taken on the road back in 1987 and significantly higher than the original estimate of 59,000 daily trips that were originally estimated. In terms of usage, Paseo del Norte has been a rousing success and we should all thank former Governor Toney Anaya and former Highway Department Head and current legislator Larry Larrañaga for their foresight in getting the road constructed.
Of course, as we have pointed out in the past, there is no free market in transportation, so it is somewhat difficult to discern which projects make sense and which do not. Nonetheless, let’s compare Paseo del Norte with the Rail Runner in terms of cost efficiency.
Paseo del Norte carries 85,400 cars daily at a cost of $85 million. Given the fact that Paseo del Norte is driven on 365 days a year, the cost of the road was $2.73 per motorist in 2006. Since the section of road is approximately 3 miles long, the cost is about $1 per motorist mile. Of course, Paseo del Norte has been in use for 20 years, but in comparing it to the Rail Runner, we have to keep the comparison the same.
How about the Rail Runner? The Rail Runner is not yet complete, but when it is, the system will cover 117 miles. Currently, 2,000 people take the train daily on the weekdays (260 days a year). Once the train reaches Santa Fe, ridership totals may double to 4,000 as the length of the route approximately doubles, but there is no way to know how many riders the system will attract.
Total construction cost of the train will be at least $400 million with an annual operating cost of approximately $18 million to be borne by New Mexico taxpayers.
Assuming that the average Rail Runner passenger travels half of the system’s 117 mile length (a generous assumption to say the least), the current annual cost per passenger mile for the Rail Runner is $13.86 or nearly 14 times the cost to travel a similar distance on Paseo del Norte.
While this assumption may be skewed in favor of the Rail Runner, I wanted to be as fair as possible to the train. That said, there is no doubt that if government is to be concerned with moving people and not attempting to mold their behavior in order to make them better people, roads are the vastly more efficient transportation choice. As suc, the focus of New Mexico policymakers should be on roads, not transit.