Saturday, March 18, 2006

Commuter Rail Comes to Santa Fe

New Mexico has bought a stretch of track for the first phase of a commuter-rail system, and trains could be running in June, Gov. Bill Richardson announced Friday.

The $50 million purchase from BNSF Railway of 51 miles of track between Belen and Bernalillo was finalized Friday.

"You'll see trains on the tracks in the next couple of weeks" as the equipment is tested, said Lawrence Rael, executive director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments.

Over the next couple of months, a contractor will build covered platforms for commuters at nine stops along the route, he said.

Plans for the $393 million Rail Runner project include extending the service to Santa Fe by the end of 2008.

The state intends to buy a total of nearly 300 miles of track from BNSF, stretching north to the Colorado state line.

The 48-mile Bernalillo-Lamy portion of the track is scheduled to be purchased in 2007 and the 200-mile stretch from Lamy to Colorado in 2008. The total price tag for all three segments is $75 million.

Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught has said BNSF wanted to sell all the track between Belen and Colorado rather than selling portions of it. BNSF and Amtrak will pay the state for the use of the tracks.

Rael said the 300-foot-long platforms will have adjacent parking at all but the downtown Albuquerque stop, which has nearby parking facilities. The cost of the platforms, to be built by Twin Mountain Construction, will range from $2.5 million to $2.8 million each, he said.

Service will be free to riders for the first three months and discounted -- a $2 flat fare -- through the end of the year. A permanent fare structure would be in place in 2007.

Transportation officials have said the commuter rail will have to be subsidized. The Belen-Bernalillo stretch is estimated to cost about $10 million annually to operate, with about $1 million projected to be recouped from ticket sales.

"The dollars that we're spending here are well worth it," said House Speaker Ben Luján, D-Nambé.

The administration says traffic is projected to increase dramatically over the next 20 years, and the Rail Runner will be a convenient and reliable alternative to driving.

Interstate 25 "is becoming more and more difficult to navigate on a daily basis," Rael said.

The train will operate at peak commuter hours Monday through Friday; Saturday service could be added, transportation officials said.

Sandoval County contributed $10 million to the project for equipment and station development.

Rail Runner stations are planned for downtown Belen; Los Lunas; Isleta Pueblo; the Albuquerque airport and South Valley area; downtown Albuquerque; the Los Ranchos and North Valley area; Sandia Pueblo; downtown Bernalillo; and at U.S. 550 in Sandoval County.

Attorney General Patricia Madrid cleared the way for the purchase a couple of weeks earlier after a legal review.
By DEBORAH BAKER | Associated Press

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