Get On the Bus
With a national energy crisis looming in the near future, where does Albuquerque stand on quality public transportation?
It would seem that all our worst predictions are catching up with us: Overpopulation, global warming and now, in the wake of two nasty hurricanes that bombarded our oil-rich Gulf Coast, a looming energy shortage, evidenced by the president's plea last week for people to start conserving precious fossil fuels. It would also seem that the time has come to stop making predictions, and start acting on solutions.
For many cities across the country, short-term solutions may lie in public transportation. With the winter season approaching and the promise of steeply rising utility bills, Albuquerque commuters may start looking for alternatives to driving their now rather expensive cars. But as a city, how well are we prepared to service our citizens?
Albuquerque seems poised to go in a more public transit-oriented direction, what with last year's addition of the Rapid Ride bus system, the commuter rail that will be running by January and a light rail system that may lay down its tracks in coming years. But much of what the city can manage in terms of funding new projects and improving old ones lies in demand, and how well people use current systems. That means that for many Albuquerqueans, in order to move forward they'll have to take the next step, and that may lead right onto a bus.
Rapid Ride, still in its fledgling first year, is the newest addition to Albuquerque's public transit system. Since its inception last December, the bus rapid transit has done fairly well for itself; beating out its 35,000 ridership goal for its first month of service in January with over 70,000 boardings, it has continued to demonstrate high ridership numbers. In fact, this August showed a 12.27 percent increase in passenger boardings over last year.
Still, the system is not without its critics. Amy Henne, president of the Nob Hill Merchants' Association, is one such critic, who said that although she thinks Rapid Ride is a step in the right direction, it is a long way away from being the answer to transportation revitalization that it could be. “There's not any kind of logistical, long-term planning to educate people on public transportation,” she said. “The city has a tremendous opportunity with the price of gas [to get people using the system], but I don't see any plan.”
Henne, who added that she's seen no increase in foot traffic in Nob Hill retail stores since Rapid Ride was started, said she hasn't seen any advertising for the system beyond efforts to get out the word on Rapid After Dark (RAD), a late-night service that ran over the summer on weekends until 3 a.m., which ended Oct. 1. Henne argued that with the money the city spends on the system, it would be worth it to put out public service announcements or work more with the city's tourism bureau to try to get more riders.
The city spends $2.4 million a year on Rapid Ride operation costs, about 15 percent of which it gets back in revenue from ticket sales. Bill Slauson, planning and marketing manager for ABQ Ride, was unavailable for comment when the Alibi went to press, but is quoted in a recent Albuquerque Journal article saying that it is standard for transit agencies to recover between 15 and 25 percent from bus fare.
Despite the fairly high ridership numbers the system has generated, most 57-seat buses still appear mostly vacant, said Ramsey Rose, an Albuquerque resident who lives along the Rapid Ride service route. Rose is upset because she feels the city “bit off more than it could chew” by purchasing such large buses, and said she thinks they are inappropriate for the area.
“It's a real disconnect. I should be thrilled about it, but it's so poorly thought out, even down to the buses that were chosen. If they were more evenly divided through more routes they'd be more useful; other areas are so underserved and Central is so overserved.”
Whatever the impressions of Rapid Ride, it could be a crucial step in securing federal funds to implement a light rail system down the line. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) will likely look at the system as an indicator for what ridership levels might be like for light rail, and how necessary and successful such a project would be.
But there is much more on Albuquerque's public transit horizon than Rapid Ride. Within a couple months, the new commuter rail (the baby of Gov. Bill Richardson, the Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG) and the New Mexico Department of Transportation) will be in operation, and it's a project that could have a profound effect on the way residents regard public transportation.
The new commuter rail, which will run from Belen to Bernalillo with nine stations along the way, will be running sometime in January and may even have some holiday trains running in December, said Chris Blewett, director of transportation and planning services for MRCOG. Blewett said a fare policy hasn't been determined yet, but that it will be cheaper than buying gas. For the 30,000 commuters that pass between Albuquerque and Sandoval County every day, and the 16,000 that come to and from our city and Valencia County, the new rail could be a great way to save money (both on gas and maintenance on their cars) and relieve traffic congestion.
“The biggest effect [of this system] is that it will give people a modal choice that doesn't exist today,” said Blewett.
For the first year of operation, Blewett said MRCOG is hoping to generate 1,000 riders a day, eventually working up to 2,000 riders a day within a couple years. Down the line, there are hopes to extend the rail to Santa Fe, a project they're hoping will be completed by the end of 2008.
To find out more about this project and stay up to date on developments, visit nmrailrunner.com.