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Rail Runner tax bill killed, but the conversation continues

By   /   February 9, 2012  /   No Comments

A provocative bill questioning how to handle the steep expenses heading down the track for the Rail Runner was unable to get through committee but it is sparking debate about the future of the train that serves the greater Albuquerque-Santa Fe corridor.

Senate Bill 247, which was introduced by Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup) addresses a question that number of voters who aren’t serviced by the Rail Runner have been asking ever since the train was unveiled six years ago: “Why are we paying for it when we don’t get to use it?” Muñoz said in an interview with Capitol Report New Mexico.

SB247 answers that question with a suggestion that intrigues some and horrifies others — creating an excise tax that would be paid only by taxpayers who live in the counties that the train serves and exempting those taxpayers who don’t.

“How are we going to fix this problem, $781 million in bonds we’re going to have to pay,” Muñoz said.

The bill was a longshot at best. First, because supporters of the Rail Runner hated the idea, as did a number of legislators whose constituents live in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe areas.

On top of that, Gov. Susana Martinez has a blanket policy of opposing taxes while a number of business interests came out against SB247. “It is double-taxing this one group on the false assumption that every single person in the seven-county area [served by the Rail Runner] is using it,” Terri Cole of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce told the Albuquerque Journal.

Sure enough, over this past weekend, SB247 was unable to move through the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee.

Sen. George Munoz (D-Gallup)

Muñoz said he was disappointed but said by bringing up the bill, a larger discussion about how to handle the Rail Runner’s costs has begun.

“I think during the interim [committees], I think this is a very good thing for Investments and Pensions Oversight to look at because if there’s a way we can lease the Rail Runner, maybe to a coal mine company … maybe Amtrak, if we can get the feds to step in and say, ‘Okay, let’s consider this a federal rail’ and you can pick up the bond payments and you still have payments … it’s a conversation that needs to be had across the state.”

The Rail Runner has a series of fiscal problems that one member of the Transportation Commission recently described as fiscal “hand grenades”: It costs $23.6 million to operate the train annually and its capital costs for the state — including principal and interest in bonds — comes to $843.3 million through 2027. There are two balloon payments of a staggering amount — about $230 million — due between 2024 and 2026.

The train’s operators did get some good news earlier this week when officials announced they received an extra $4.8 million in federal funding that is expected to keep the Rail Runner from running in the red for this year.

But Muñoz thinks the state should look at alternatives.

“Should we spend that money on roads? With those numbers we can pay for [the Paseo del Norte interchange] in three years,” Muñoz said.

 

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Since 2010, Rob Nikolewski has covered New Mexico politics and investigated fraud, waste and abuse in government. He also writes an opinion column in the Sunday editions of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Rob joined New Mexico Watchdog after 20 years in television as a sports anchor and reporter. He anchored at MSNBC, New York City, Boston, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Reno and Boise, winning three regional Emmy awards along the way. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in public administration from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a bachelor's degree in journalism from Trinity University in San Antonio.

  • Observer

    Senator Mjunoz, a Democrat, presumably voted for Mr. Richardson when the latter ran for governor. He should have considered the issues he raised with his proposed legislation before doing so. It is governor Richardson’s fault, and the fault of the Democrat Party that New Mexico is stuck with the Rail Runner and Spaceport white elephants. Clearly if any additional tax is to be imposed, it should be upon registered Democrats.

  • R R R Raider

    Hail to Observer you hit it right on the head .. The democrats elected pancho richardson so let all dumbocrats pay for th white donkey rail runner .. They also elected the JOKE sitting in the whitehouse ! beg him for money to pay off the white donkey ,Afte rall he is their Saviour LOL Democrats always looking for a free ride .