Economy Tax and Budget Taxes Transportation

NM Should Avoid Higher Gasoline Tax



Some New Mexicans have convinced themselves that the challenges facing the state’s highways require a higher gasoline tax. They’re wrong, and here’s why.

First, the true condition of New Mexico’s roads contrasts with the oft-heard claims that they are “crumbling” and “in disrepair.” In the Reason Foundation’s latest national analysis, the overall performance and cost-effectiveness of New Mexico’s highways ranked seventh. States graded worse included our neighbors Texas (11th), Arizona (19th), Oklahoma (22nd), Utah (29th), and Colorado (33rd).

New Mexico scored its best marks in maintenance disbursements per mile (1st), capital-bridge disbursements per mile (6th) and rural arterial pavement condition (6th).

Still there’s no denying that the revenue needed to build and maintain highways is stagnant. Autos are becoming more efficient, and Millennials do not drive as much as previous generations. Between the 2009 and 2014 fiscal years, New Mexico’s road fund rose from $371.1 million to $380.6 million. Adjusted for inflation, the increase became a small decline.

That’s why pressure is mounting for action. Lawmakers and the governor, the argument goes, must hike the gasoline tax. “They are going to have to do something to raise revenue,” Greg Rowangould, a University of New Mexico professor of civil engineering told theAlbuquerque Journal in a May 2 article. “They don’t have an option of doing nothing.”

Really? Isn’t spending existing revenue more efficiently an option? In the 2015 session, Sen. Carroll H. Leavell, R-Jal, drafted a bill to gradually transfer 100 percent of the receipts from the motor-vehicle excise tax — currently applied to general expenditures — to the road fund. Legislative analysts predicted that by the 2019 fiscal year, the switch would yield an additional $156 million for highways.

Another boost could come from halting the siphoning off of gasoline-tax revenue. Currently, a portion is devoted to the state’s aviation and general funds, as well as the coffers of counties and municipalities.

And putting the expensive and underused Rail Runner out of its misery would free up tens of millions of dollars annually.

Also on the spending side, the purchasing power of transportation projects would be enhanced by the repeal of New Mexico’s prevailing-wage law. The mandate is anti-competition, and thus, profoundly anti-taxpayer.

According to Roxanne Rivera-Wiest, the president of Associated Builders and Contractors of New Mexico, prevailing-wage rates are “determined by the director of the Labor Relations Division of the Department of Workforce Solutions, at the same wage rates and fringe benefit rates used in collective bargaining agreements as supported by the unions.”

But the vast majority of the construction industry in the Land of Enchantment is not unionized. Thus, highway projects in the state are unnecessarily expensive.

A report by Ohio’s Legislative Service Commission found “overall savings of 10.7 percent” when the Buckeye State exempted school construction from its prevailing-wage requirement. The New York Times recently reported that limited rollbacks have been enacted in West Virginia and Nevada, and campaigns for full repeals “have been offered in more than a dozen states, including Michigan and Missouri, as well as Wisconsin.”

A final way to avoid a gasoline-tax hike is to invite the private sector to contribute.

R. Richard Geddes, of Cornell University, noted that for-profit entities “were widely used in the 19th century to build and operate toll bridges and roads, and the vast majority of U.S. railroads were constructed with private money.”

Peter Samuel, the publisher of the newsletter Toll Roads, believes that by “allowing takeovers, consolidations, and spin-offs of highway assets, the markets would ensure that highways are managed for the best return on capital — the dynamic that gives us our food, our fuels, our housing, our electric power, and all the rest of what goes into our standard of living.”

Imposing higher taxes on a state where employment, incomes, and home values have yet to recover from the Great Recession isn’t sound policy. There are indeed innovative, proven, and cost-free options to upgrade and expand New Mexico’s roads.

Economy Spaceport Tax and Budget Taxes Transportation

Tax-Funded Spaceport was Never a Good Idea



The recent crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 in the Mojave Desert was a tragedy for the pilot that lost his life in the accident. It was also a setback for Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic, and the entire private space industry. However, for New Mexico taxpayers, it was only the latest and most vivid sign that building a Spaceport was not a wise use of tax dollars.

The transition from publicly-funded space travel (NASA) to a competitive, private-sector model was destined to be choppy and unpredictable. It is very much an open question how humans will travel safely and regularly into space in private spacecraft.

Even NASA with its multi-billion dollar budgets never quite figured out how to get humans back and forth form space routinely and regularly. The Space Shuttle was originally intended to launch as frequently as once a week. That didn’t come close to happening even in the best of times.

This all leads us to New Mexico where, at the behest of then Gov. Bill Richardson, our Legislature embarked our state upon a spaceport construction project at a cost to taxpayers of $220 million and counting.

A decade after this project was undertaken we have no idea what technologies will be used to fly people to space, whether companies can make space tourism profitable, and whether New Mexicans will benefit economically even if the space tourism industry succeeds.

Unfortunately, while Branson, Rutan, and other space pioneers are putting their own money and reputations on the line to make their space enterprises successful, the folks who unwisely got New Mexico into this mess cannot be held accountable and will suffer no personal losses from their actions.

Bill Richardson is not lying awake at night wondering if New Mexico’s Spaceport succeeds and I know of no legislator or other elected official who lost their race due to their unwise “investment” in the Spaceport.

This is where the Spaceport goes from isolated mistake to cautionary tale. The Spaceport has proven to be a spectacular failure in large part because the people behind it didn’t have any “skin” in the game. This lack of consequences leaves politicians to make decisions based on all manner of personal and political desires.

That is not to say that private sector entrepreneurs don’t fail. Indeed, if you know anything about Steve Jobs, he failed time and again as do most entrepreneurs. But they have their own money at stake and thus have the incentive to make better bets and only make bets they expect to succeed.

Just as governments should not kill businesses through high taxes and onerous regulations, government should not attempt to place bets using tax dollars on favored industries or technologies.

The Spaceport is only the most vivid failure of such government overreach in New Mexico, but we see the Rail Runner piling up ongoing losses and massive “balloon payments” due in the not-too-distant future.

The film industry which the economically-ignorant cite as a great success has actually lost $147 million for taxpayers since 2010 according to the New Mexico Legislature’s own study.

In recent years, taxpayers have also lost $16 million in subsidies for Schott Solar and $19 million Eclipse Aviation.

These wasted tax dollars could have been returned to real New Mexico entrepreneurs in the form of tax cuts to produce jobs and a real economic stimulus to our state. Instead, those scarce dollars have been – and in the cases of the Rail Runner and film subsidies – continue to reduce our prosperity by taking money out of entrepreneurs’ pockets and allocating it to less productive uses.

The good news is that Gov. Martinez doesn’t seem inclined to grandiose spending on spaceports and trains. Hopefully, New Mexicans have learned an important lesson about the promises of politicians and, rather than government micromanagement of our economy – a tendency that has led us to our impoverished state – will support government as referee, not coach.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

Economy Education Tax and Budget Transportation Videos

Gessing and Webber Pre-Debate Interview w/ Fred Martino on KRWG TV

Before our debate in Las Cruces (and thus before the election or the Virgin Galactic crash), I sat down to discuss the issues of the day with former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alan Webber for a discussion with Fred Martino on KRWG’s Newsmakers.

Economy Transportation

No Reason to Depend on Washington for Roads

The following article appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News on July 20, 2014. Although legislation has passed the House (and will likely pass the Senate soon) to temporarily prop up the highway program and avoid an immediate crisis, the need for fundamental change in how America builds and maintains its infrastructure remains.


The next manufactured crisis coming from Washington, DC involves the federal highway program. According to news reports, the Federal Highway Trust Fund is on the cusp of insolvency, with a cash shortage looming before the end of July. Despite the deadline, lawmakers are at an impasse over how to replenish an account that funds the nation’s highway projects.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is warning states would, on average, see a 28 percent reduction in federal dollars to cover the costs of current needs if additional funding is not found. One potential source of funding is a hike in the federal gas tax.

In its current form, the federal highway program is financed through an 18.4 cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline and a 24.4 cent tax on diesel fuel. Unfortunately, while the gas tax more closely resembles a user fee than other taxes charged by Washington, it isn’t. If it were a user-fee, gas taxes would finance roads, bridges and other items that benefit motorists who pay the tax. Instead, over the past decade, Congress has diverted well over $55 billion of gas taxes to non-highway projects, most notably mass transit.

Whether you want more mass transit or less, the fact is that transit riders don’t pay the gas tax, rather motorists subsidize these systems nationwide. Ideally, Congress would create transportation policy under the principal of “user pays.”

Unfortunately, Washington seems to be utterly incapable of making even the most basic reforms. Worse, transportation policies that work in New York and Chicago may not work so well in Albuquerque or Farmington, New Mexico.

The solution is simple: get Washington out of transportation policy and hand it back to the states. After all, as the Highway Program currently operates, Washington simply takes in the gas tax money, adds a bunch of requirements (like costly Davis-Bacon labor rules), diverts for pet projects and mass transit, and returns the money to the states.

This is silly. Washington played an important role in the creation of the Interstate Highway System, but that was completed in 1992.

Several bills have been introduced in Washington over the years that would devolve all or most of the program – thereby eliminating the federal gas tax – to the various states. The latest proposal called the “Transportation Empowerment Act” was introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) and Rep. Tom Graves (Georgia).

States would then be able to experiment with transportation policies that make sense for their own populations. Gas taxes could be raised or lowered. Or, as Oregon is considering, motorists could be charged based on miles driven. Priorities like transit could be emphasized or reduced also depending on the particular state.

Lastly, absent federal mandates favoring prevailing wage laws, Davis-Bacon states could decide for themselves whether they want to pay union rates for construction projects, build 15 percent more infrastructure, or save taxpayers up to 15 percent. New Mexico is a Davis-Bacon state, but neighboring Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Oklahoma are not. Amazingly, Texas is the only adjacent state that, like New Mexico, unnecessarily inflates labor rates on public works projects.

Like so many things, the federal government undertook a specific project like the Interstate Highway System only to refuse to see its size and scope reduced. There is no reason for a disagreement in Washington to negatively impact New Mexico roads and bridges, but that is the system Congress has saddled us with.

We at the Rio Grande Foundation have often criticized policies enacted in Santa Fe, but there is no doubt that Santa Fe would do a better job than Washington. And, given innovation and competition from neighboring states to enact the best, most-efficient transportation system, I believe that Santa Fe would improve.

To date, none of New Mexico’s congressional representatives has co-sponsored this legislation or any bill that would really reform the federal transportation system. Unfortunately, that means New Mexico will continue to rely on the whims of a dysfunctional Washington for something as basic as transportation funding.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

Economy Transportation

NM Needs to Give Business Competition an Uber Lyft


Ride-share companies Uber and Lyft continue to face opposition at the Public Regulation Commission. Representatives of incumbent taxi cab companies have led lobbying efforts against the ride-share companies having published articles in various newspapers decrying the new companies’ plans to enter the New Mexico market.

Two articles, both written by taxi drivers, have appeared in the Albuquerque Journal alone. Concerns supposedly include “an uneven playing field” that gives ride-share drivers an “unfair” advantage.

Complying with complicated and arcane government regulations is expensive. Business models that avoid those regulations (often through the innovative application of new technologies) can provide better customer service at a lower cost. This is good, not bad for consumers.

Consumer interests are the other, oft-cited justification for onerous government regulations. In reality, consumers are no more than a fig-leaf in the fight against competition.

It is, after all, not angry users of these ride-share services that have been complaining to the media. We’re instead expected to believe that taxi drivers are so public-spirited that they are ignoring the benefits they receive from government regulations protecting their market-share to selflessly defend those poor consumers from being taken advantage of by the unethical competition!

In reality, of course, at least some self-interested taxi drivers are hoping to bend government regulations to protect their businesses. Absent government protections, taxi drivers are just another small business that must innovate and improve or whither away. Imagine if buggy whip manufacturers had been able to lobby government to strangle the automobile industry in its early years. How many American jobs would have been lost and how would living standards have been reduced?

The phenomenon of using government regulations to quash innovation in a given industry is called “regulatory capture” by economists.

Rather than lobbying for innovation-killing regulations on ride-share companies, it would be great if the taxi industry worked to deregulate their own industry to make it more competitive. The issue of market-entry was just dealt with a few years ago when modest reforms shifted the “burden of evidence” from proposed startups to the incumbents. Imagine having to ask your competition for permission to set up your business! But it is far from a “free” market when one has to hire legal help and beg the government for permission before trying to make a living.

And this is where New Mexico’s political culture and broader economy come into play. It isn’t news that the economy here in the Land of Enchantment is struggling terribly. And Lyft and Uber alone won’t provide enough jobs to drag our economy out of the ditch, but technophile Millennials in particular aren’t as interested in owning cars as were previous generations. They also like the hip factor that these services provide. We need to keep/attract these technophiles to New Mexico to start businesses and create jobs.

Of course, the suspicion of new technologies and outsiders attempting to make a profit is nothing new. It has been ingrained in the psyches of many New Mexicans for generations. Suspicion of free market capitalism has led to business and entrepreneurship-destroying public policies coming from Santa Fe. A report from the Canada-based Fraser Institute found New Mexico to be the least economically-free state in the US and New Mexico consistently underperforms its neighbors on business friendliness measures.

This lack of economic freedom was masked somewhat over the decades by generous federal spending in our state. We still had high poverty rates, but federal spending made the data look better than they really were.

That situation is changing. New Mexicans can no longer rely on Washington to prop up our economy. We need far-reaching, tax, education, and regulatory reforms. Allowing Uber and Lyft to operate in a competitive will not resuscitate New Mexico’s economy by itself, but such a move combined with broader deregulatory efforts could finally help grow New Mexico’s private sector economy.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

Economy Education RailRunner Tax and Budget Transportation Videos

Paul Gessing’s Appearance on KRWG “Newsmakers”

On this 30 minute interview with Fred Martino of KRWG public television in Las Cruces, Gessing discusses several issues facing New Mexico including the struggling economy, the RailRunner and Spaceport, education reform, federal lands in New Mexico, and criminal justice reform. Check out the video below:

Economy RailRunner Transportation

Passenger Rail Not Worth Big Subsidies it Requires


The tremendous costs of the Rail Runner were outlined in grave detail recently in the Journal. Annual costs are currently about $50 million between operations and payments on the original infrastructure. A portion of these costs are currently being shifted to the federal taxpayer, but there is nothing “sustainable” about the Rail Runner’s long-term finances.

New Mexico taxpayers will face significant additional financial burdens if the Legislature and Governor decide to spend taxpayer dollars to keep both the Rail Runner and federally-owned Amtrak trains heading down the tracks here in New Mexico.

Worse, what Washington gives us in the form of operating subsidies, it can also take away. New federal regulations costing up to $30 million are being imposed by Washington on the entire railroad industry, including the Rail Runner. Those costs which were completely unexpected will be borne directly by New Mexico taxpayers above and beyond the current operating subsidies which themselves come to nearly $20 per passenger, per trip.

And then there is Amtrak. The federally-owned passenger network receives over a billion dollars annually in taxpayer subsidies. Now, it is asking for up to $200 million – a significant portion of which the passenger rail network is hoping will come from New Mexico taxpayers – in order to improve tracks through New Mexico that are owned by the BNSF railroad. Outside of the Northeast, Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks it runs on; rather it demands use of tracks owned by private-sector freight railroads.

Rail advocates will undoubtedly tout the supposed benefits of having Amtrak service in our state, but the reality is that Amtrak is barely a drop in the bucket when it comes to our transportation network. How often, dear reader, do you pick visiting friends and family up from the train station?

Neither the Rio Grande Foundation, nor other free market transportation analysts who criticize publicly-owned and managed projects like the Rail Runner and Amtrak, hate trains.

Advocates often charge that roads are subsidized, so there is nothing wrong with subsidizing trains. The scale of subsidies is totally different. Roads are subsidized at .5 cents per passenger mile while transit receives 61 cents per passenger mile nationally. Roads may not pay for themselves completely, but they receive few subsidies compared to costly projects like the Rail Runner and Amtrak.

It is not that trains can’t make money. BNSF made over $20 billion in profits during 2012 with little in the way of government subsidies. Nonetheless, I would be outraged if BNSF or any other railroad operator came to the New Mexico Legislature asking for taxpayer dollars to pad their bottom line. There’s no reason not to hold Amtrak and the Rail Runner to a similar standard.

In tough economic times with slow revenue growth, we should not divert limited taxpayer dollars from schools, needed tax reforms, and other economic development priories to fund economically superfluous passenger rail systems. How much money is the Legislature going to throw at Amtrak and the Rail Runner before saying “enough?”

To the best extent possible, all modes of transportation, including roads, should compete on an even playing field free of taxpayer subsidies. Freight rail does this successfully throughout American and has so for years while passenger rail has not.

I don’t envy Governor Martinez or legislators and the tough decisions they face when it comes to pouring more money into these systems to keep them going or cutting them off and letting them fail completely.

If there is a silver lining to all this it is that, hopefully, the next time someone starts selling massively-expensive dreams of a transformed transportation network, voters and elected officials will remember that government-led “transformations” come with steep price tags.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

Economy RailRunner Spaceport Tax and Budget Transportation

The Spaceport and RailRunner: When Do We Stop Digging?


How long do you keep spending money on something before you quit and cut your losses? New Mexico’s Legislature will soon face some difficult decisions as to how much taxpayer money to spend on two high profile, Richardson-era projects, the Rail Runner and the Spaceport.

Let’s start with the RailRunner. The train already costs taxpayers nearly $50 million a year in payments on the initial infrastructure and operations. That doesn’t include two balloon payments of $230 million (made in addition to operations costs) which will come due next decade.

Now, due to a new federal regulation, New Mexico taxpayer could be on the hook for another $30 million to implement a federally-required safety system for the Rail Runner. It is worth pointing out that the federal regulation behind this requirement is a huge waste. Even Cass Sunstein who was President Obama’s administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has stated during testimony in the US House that the new “Positive Train Control” regulation produced benefits that are lower than its costs.”

The fact that this regulation is an absurd waste of money is of little consolation to New Mexico taxpayers who will nonetheless be forced to pay this $30 million in addition to the ongoing costs for infrastructure and operations.

A second project that just keeps getting pricier is New Mexico’s Spaceport. Taxpayers initially spent $210 million to construct the facility in hopes of bringing a new, private space industry to the state. Unfortunately, the launch schedule of the facility’s main tenant, Virgin Galactic, has repeatedly been delayed. These delays along with costly additions to the facility have led to a nearly abject lack of positive economic activity generated by the facility and have instead caused the Spaceport to suck up even greater amounts of taxpayer money above-and-beyond the original cost.

In 2012, taxpayers spent an unexpected $7 million to extend a runway at the Spaceport that was allegedly too short for spacecraft to launch. Now, as delays continue and Virgin Galactic continues to push back expected launch dates, the Spaceport will be requesting another $6.8 million to pave the road to the facility from the South. The 23-mile road is currently an unimproved dirt road maintained by Doña Ana County. The northern road, which connects to the Spaceport via Truth or Consequences, is paved.

Lastly, in terms of the Spaceport, taxpayers are on the hook for yet another $5 to $6 million required for management and operations for each year that Virgin Galactic delays commercial flights from the southern New Mexico spaceport.

Obviously, as New Mexico’s economy continues to struggle and tax revenue growth remains slow, the Legislature faces some difficult decisions on these two projects. Are there any limits as to how much taxpayers should be expected to pay to support these facilities before we decide to abandon them or take drastic steps to cut costs? If so, when is enough, enough?

What priorities are we giving up in order to attract a manned, private space industry that has yet to take flight and a train that can never come close to breaking even at a total cost of over $1 billion (before accounting for this new federal regulation)?

While it is easy to dismiss the additional money as just another cost of these publicly-beneficial projects, from a budgetary perspective, a dollar spent on spaceports and trains is a dollar diverted from schools, tax reform, and other economic development priories.

Regardless of how the Legislature decides to move forward regarding these two projects, I hope that policymakers in Santa Fe understand realize that the embracing the basics of government is tough enough.

The painful lessons here are that hitching one’s star to “the next big thing” or spending massive amounts of taxpayer money in an effort to change transportation patterns may prove a costly gamble.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

Economy Transportation

Reform Motor Coach Industry to Promote More Competition


The Rio Grande Foundation recently completed a report in which it analyzed dozens of state regulations that are holding back our economy and need to be eliminated or reformed. The need for deregulation has never been more apparent with our economy losing jobs and seeing an outflow of workers (according to a recent report from United Van Lines).

Unlike many issues in Santa Fe, deregulation has not historically been a partisan issue. At the federal level, President Jimmy Carter deregulated trucking, freight rail and airlines to positive effect in the 1970s. President Reagan continued those efforts in ways that led to significant economic growth throughout the 1980s.

To further illustrate the point that deregulation can and should be bipartisan, we are pleased to see that Think New Mexico has embraced the concept of deregulation, at least insofar as motor carriers here in New Mexico are concerned.

Think New Mexico has been working to pass House Bill 194, legislation sponsored on a bipartisan basis by Republican Rep. Tom Taylor and Democratic Rep. Carl Trujillo. The bill attempts to overcome many of the most absurd barriers to free competition in transportation services. These barriers harm both New Mexico’s economy and reduce options for consumers.

Today, entrepreneurs seeking to open new taxi, shuttle, or moving companies must gain the approval of the incumbent providers. Imagine Wendy’s having to gain the approval of McDonald’s before opening up a restaurant. One Albuquerque man who dreams of owning his own taxi business has been working for eight years to overcome this barrier.

According to (a staff response in a case before) the New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission, which is charged with actually regulating motor carriers, “The Albuquerque Cabs appear to operate as a cartel: they are the only certificated taxicab companies in Albuquerque, they share the market evenly, they charge identical rates, and they have the same attorney. As a cartel, their interests may be best served by maintaining rates above the market rate and by discouraging competition, not by ensuring that the public is served by quality, affordable, and plentiful taxicab service.”

Cartels are creatures of government policy, not the product of a healthy free market.

Another barrier is pricing. In a free market, price competition is a primary determiner of market success. Under New Mexico’s arcane motor carrier laws, the state/government must approve all prices charged by these companies. Making matters worse, motor carriers have a special exemption from state antitrust laws that encourages them to form state-sponsored cartels and price fix. HB 194 would change all that.

With an active push for regulatory reform under way, the existing motor transport oligopoly is not going to give up without a fight. They have worked to introduce their own more industry-friendly legislation, SB 328, which muddies the waters and continues to allow existing providers to smother their potential competitors under a blizzard of legal filings using the current antiquated law.

Rio Grande Foundation does not always see eye to eye with the folks at Think New Mexico, but when it comes to regulating motor carriers, we agree that policymakers should stick to safety regulations, not micromanaging a potentially-competitive market for the benefit of a few well-connected special interests.

The aforementioned PRC staff brief concluded, “There has been a great deal of economic analysis of taxicab regulation in the past thirty years, with most experts agreeing that the public is best served by increased competition and limited barriers to entry.” We agree. It is time for the New Mexico Legislature to do what is in the best interests of consumers and entrepreneurs alike by truly deregulating New Mexico’s motor carriers by supporting HB 194.

The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization.

RailRunner Tax and Budget Transportation

Put Rail Runner Out of Its Misery Sooner, Not Later


Originally marketed at a price of $122 million and as possibly being “high-speed,” the Rail Runner shuttles (mostly) tourists and government employees from downtown Albuquerque to Santa Fe and from Albuquerque south to the bedroom community of Belen.

Only recently have New Mexico taxpayers been made aware of the full scale of spending that this project entails. The issue has exploded onto the pages of the Albuquerque Journal and other papers. According to newspaper reports, the train will cost a total of $1.3 billion over the next 20 years.

Regardless of whether you think the Rail Runner is worth the money or not, there is no doubt that the process that created the train is rotten to the core.

Rather than paying the train off in equal annual payments over 30 years as a family would do with a mortgage, Gov. Richardson set up the train’s financing so that he got the credit, but future generations would pay the bills. Future taxpayers are on the hook for two lump sum payments of $230 million per year in 2025 and 2027. These $460 million payments do not include replacement costs for the train sets and track which, according to transportation expert Randal O’Toole, must be replaced at something approximating their original cost every 30 years.

Such shady financing schemes must be prohibited from happening in the future. If a particular project is desired, payments on that project should be spread out evenly over the life of the project, not designed so that current generations reap the benefits while future generations are stuck with the bills.

While it would be painful to do so, the best possible decision at this point is to shut the train down right away. We can’t throw good money after bad forever and, if we shut the train down right away, taxpayers will save $453 million over the next 25 years.

In addition to the system’s shady and costly finances, there are several other reasons to shut the train down sooner than later.

Buses would be more flexible and faster: A system of buses running between various parts of Albuquerque and Santa Fe would be able to transport people at a fraction of the cost and much less time than it takes the Rail Runner to take people from a fixed downtown location to Santa Fe. The train takes 90 minutes to make this trip while a bus could make the trip in 60 minutes. This disparity doesn’t even consider time needed to drive to the train station and wait for the train.

The Rail Runner isn’t really “green”: Amtrak trains (the best available analog available for the Rail Runner when it comes to energy usage) uses 2,700 BTUs per passenger mile, while automobiles currently use about 3,300. That is a slight advantage for rail, but by 2035 (due to federal requirements), the train will still be using 2,700 BTUs, but cars will be using approximately 2,500 BTUs per passenger mile. Amtrak trains – the best comparison available – emit approximately the same level of CO2 gas as automobiles do today.

The Rail Runner has not and will not do anything to reduce traffic on I-25. That’s because daily traffic volume on I-25 (both immediately north and south of town) is so massive as to dwarf the impact of the Rail Runner’s ridership. More than 80,000 cars travel daily on I-25 just north and just south of Albuquerque, while the train’s daily total ridership of 3,397 for the entire system is essentially a rounding error.

New Mexico’s economy is still in the doldrums. Only oil and gas are holding steady. Rather than letting the Rail Runner suck up more money and resources, it’s time to throw on the brakes and stop the wasteful spending.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.