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.
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.