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New Mexico’s only commuter rail line has marked another year of shrinking ridership, and a legislative report released Monday suggests targeted improvements in infrastructure, shorter travel times and a moratorium on any new stations could help reverse the trend.
The report was reviewed by members of the Legislative Finance Committee during a meeting ahead of the start of the 60-day legislative session. It shows there were more than three-quarters of a million trips taken during the last fiscal year, or 37 per cent below the peak of 1.2 million during the 2010 fiscal year.
Ridership has declined every year since, with the last fiscal year marking the lowest level since service was extended to Santa Fe in late 2008.
A project of former Gov. Bill Richardson, the train began operating in 2006. One of its initial goals was to spur economic development around the stations along the route from Belen to Santa Fe.
“Most station-centred plans have not materialized due to local economic and market factors since 2008,” the report states. “While there has been growth in employment and building activity around certain stations in job centres, the effects of rail service itself are unclear.”
The analysts said the state can play a role by adopting policies that encourage and regulate what’s known as transit-oriented development. They pointed to examples in Utah and Tennessee, where similar commuter lines have had increases in ridership.
However, they acknowledge that the Rail Runner passes through rural and tribal areas that likely won’t be developed and the pattern of suburban growth in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe metropolitan areas is different than many other regions with a commuter rail line.
The report recommends infrastructure improvements aimed at reducing the idling time for the train when freight and other cross-country traffic is on the tracks. Upgrades to the track to support speeds of up to 90 mph also could trim some commute times.
The most common reasons given for not riding the train include inconvenient schedules and long travel times.
The report also states that the operational cost per passenger trip was $34 in 2017. Fares covered just 8 per cent of that, with federal grants and gross receipts tax revenues making up the rest.
The downward trend in Rail Runner ridership has coincided with lower gas prices, making the commuter train less competitive as an alternative to driving. That’s despite the Rail Runner’s relatively low cost for riders.
Freeway congestion in the region also has decreased compared to urban areas with similar commuter rail lines, according to the report.
Among the recommendations, the report calls for an immediate moratorium on the development of any new stations. It also calls for closing or limiting service at a station in downtown Bernalillo, which is the least-used stop. The closure of any station would require the approval of state transportation officials.
The data shows one-third of stations account for two-thirds of Rail Runner ridership. The review found that opening new stations hasn’t led to more riders, and proposals for additional stations would complicate service without guaranteeing that more people ride the train.
The report also highlights a $1 million station built south of downtown Albuquerque that was envisioned as a stop for special events at the University of New Mexico. It’s fenced off and hasn’t been used since 2011.
This article first appeared on www.660citynews.com
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