Many of us may not be old enough to remember the Doodlebug, despite the fact that for years the quaint and colorful commuter rail passed in and out of our city—transporting workers, students and families from Belen to Albuquerque and back again. One of many southwestern trains, it earned its moniker through a whimsical resemblance to the bug of the same name (in that it tirelessly dashed from city to city), and began its daily commutes in 1934. It was beloved by the folks who graced its seats and inspired many a young mother to require that her children dress in their Sunday finery before climbing on board. Yet, alas, after World War II, funding for the rail line trailed off, going instead to the more novel business of road-building—and, despite protests from the community, the Belen to Albuquerque Doodlebug made its last stop on April 9, 1968.
We haven't had a commuter rail since the days of that quirky old train, but that's about to change.
This fall a new commuter rail is making its debut, and the state is hoping that it will be every bit as well-used and well-loved as its predecessor. The new train, which has yet to acquire a nickname as imaginative as the last, is the result of an effort made by Gov. Bill Richardson, in addition to the Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG) and The New Mexico Department of Transportation. The hope for the project is that the train will reduce traffic congestion, decrease air pollution and expand opportunities for economic development in the region.
The project will be divided into two phases. The first phase will include implementing the train along the corridor reaching from Belen to Bernalillo, with stations also located in Los Lunas, the South Valley, the Downtown transportation center at Central and First, the North Valley and potentially at Sandia Pueblo. Trains should be running in this corridor this coming fall, likely in November. The second phase includes expanding the rail line to Santa Fe, and will hopefully be completed in the fall of 2008.
The planning, capital purchases and track improvements necessary for the project are being paid for through Gov. Richardson's Improvement Partnership (GRIP) legislation that was passed in the fall of 2003, a grand total exceeding $75 million. Eventually, a combination of federal, state and local funds will be used to pay for annual operating costs, in addition to funds generated from passenger fare.
One of the primary reasons the state is putting forth the effort to build the rail line is to ward off the threat of traffic congestion along I-25, which in the near future could become as frustrating and hazardous as congestion in cities like Denver and Fort Worth. Currently, there are 70,000 workers who travel into Albuquerque each weekday, 13,000 of which come from Valencia County and 19,000 that come from Sandoval County, according to 2000 census data. Additionally, it's expected that by year 2025, the population of Valencia County will grow from 66,000 to 119,000, and Sandoval County from 90,000 to 180,000.
Without an adequate alternative to highway travel, those numbers could make for a disastrous recipe for stalled commuter traffic, says Bruce Rizzieri, Public Transport Planner for MRCOG. Currently, it takes 45 minutes to drive from downtown Albuquerque to the center of Belen. But by 2025, it's estimated that it will take 82 minutes to drive the same section of highway; whereas the commuter rail would still only take 45 minutes to travel.
The commuter rail is the best bet for easing congestion, says Rizzieri. One reason is that since much of I-25 runs through tribal land, it's unlikely that the highway will ever be expanded. "There's limited availability of land to expand I-25, and the cost of that expansion both environmentally and financially, is significant. Commuter rail service is an excellent alternative to provide the same type of transportation services in a cost-effective way," says Rizzieri. The new rail line will run along already-existing tracks, and so minimal construction will be needed to get the new system up and running, most of which will come in the form of building stations.
"The bottom line, long-term, for the city of Albuquerque, is that we will grow," said Mayor Martin Chavez at a press conference for the commuter rail on Friday. "The challenge is how we will grow. And if we don't integrate into our future plans mass transportation, then we lose the opportunity to be a truly great city."
Part of what the mayor was talking about is the opportunities for economic development that accompany a rail line. New stations along the corridor open up the potential for new businesses, new jobs and possibly even new housing. As Lawrence Rael, executive director for MRCOG, wrote in an editorial last month, "In our efforts to generate economic development, we will be in a stronger position to attract new businesses if we can draw on the combined resources of many communities and a safe, efficient public transportation infrastructure is a fundamental building block in that effort."
But not everyone is as confident in the new rail line. Ellen Gailey, Chairman for Albuquerque's Transit Advisory Board, and her husband, Mike Haueter, are wary about the future costs of the train. "There are some legitimate issues about who's going to pay operating and maintenance costs," says Gailey, "There's going to have to be a balance struck between how much it costs and how many people will use it—and I don't know the answer. We need to be prepared to run the service for years to develop ridership, and to pay for it all those years." Gailey and Haueter were also concerned that the commuter rail might promote sprawl, since it will be much easier now for folks to live further away from jobs. They do, however, recognize that the environmental impact of sprawl would be lessened because traffic congestion (and therefore air pollution) wouldn't increase much.
Yet, overall, the couple is optimistic about the future for the train. "It's like the seed for something much, much bigger," says Haueter. The couple suggested that eventually expanding the train to run from Los Alamos to El Paso would be a wise move—and that it would prompt more people in the state to use it, since it would run through such destinations as New Mexico Tech and New Mexico State University.
But more than bolstering the economy; the new rail line should help to increase the quality of life for the people of New Mexico. It is an alternative for those who cannot afford their own car, or who, for one reason or another, are unable to drive. It will also serve as a way to free up I-25 and, by preventing traffic accidents, possibly save a few lives.
MRCOG is asking for feedback from the community. If you'd like to find out more about the commuter rail project, or would like to voice your opinion and learn about upcoming events, visit www.mrcog-nm.gov/commuter_rail.htm
Call 346-0660 ext. 255 with news tips. E-mail your guest editorial or letter to firstname.lastname@example.org.