N.M. can’t afford Rail Runner costs

The Rail Runner has percolated below the surface as a political issue since it went into service in 2006. Originally marketed at a price of $122 million and as possibly being “high-speed,” the RailRunner 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 the process that created the train is rotten to the core. For starters, the train has been operational for five years, but only recently have the system’s true finances been explained in any detail.

Secondly, rather than paying the train off in equal annual payments over 30 years as a family would do with a mortgage, Gov. Bill Richardson managed to set up the train’s financing so that he got the credit, but future governors and legislators would have to pay the bills. The fact is that New Mexico 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.

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.