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 V.17 No.29 | July 17 - 23, 2008 

The Real Side

Trolley Roundabout

Questions on the resurrected “modern streetcar”

I’ve got a few questions about this resurrected $28 million-a-mile trolley—excuse me, “modern streetcar.”

First, some history: In the fall of 2006, under Council President Martin Heinrich, the City Council rushed through a $270 million streetcar project. Councilors spent less time debating this matter than they gave to considering new pet ordinances. The Council also passed a $340 million tax increase by way of extending the quarter-cent transportation tax that is set to expire next year.

The public wasn't pleased, and furor intensified when the Council’s streetcar afficionados refused to let the public vote on the tax extension, even though the expiration date had been a key promise to voters when they narrowly approved the tax in 1999.

As a result of the public outcry, the tax increase was repealed. But the trolley didn’t die. Its supporters played for time. The proposal was referred to a task force, headed by Councilor Isaac Benton, one of the streetcar’s strongest supporters.

By Sept. 1, 2008, Benton’s task force will submit a report to the Council on moving forward with building a streetcar system and how to pay for it. A study by Leland Consulting Group will be the report’s main component. Last week, Benton offered a preview in a City Hall press conference.

According to Benton's sneak peek, the route would run along Central from Downtown to San Mateo for a startup cost of $106 million and about $4 million in annual operating subsidies. Most of that money will have to come from some form of tax increase. The new alignment does not include the formally proposed Yale Boulevard spur to the airport or the run to Tingley Beach, thus the lower total cost. But the $28 million-a-mile figure is the same as in 2006.

Exactly what makes a modern streetcar system $28 million-a-mile better than a successful modern bus system?

Like I said, I’ve got questions.

First question: How many people will ride this thing? Answer: “The streetcar system would draw about 5,000 riders a day,” according to the Albuquerque Journal’s report on Benton’s press conference. Neither the article nor the press conference gave mention that these would be new riders, meaning they instead would come from the number of people already riding the bus.

Next question: 5,000 streetcar riders a day—that’s it?

According to the City of Albuquerque’s Transportation Department website, the Route 66 line moves an average of 9,300 passengers a day and the Rapid Ride Red Line moves 155,000 riders a month, about another 5,000 a day.

Five-thousand riders a day after spending $28 million a mile for a new streetcar system versus the already more than 14,000 riders a day without spending an additional dime. Do I have that right? We’re supposed to spend more than $100 million so about a third of Central’s daily riders might switch from hopping on a bus to taking a streetcar?

In 2006, we were told the streetcar would draw 7,100 daily riders who would not get on a bus. That prediction has now disappeared into the same thin air from which it was conjured back then.

Citywide, the past fiscal year saw 900,000 more passenger boardings on Albuquerque’s buses. The Central Avenue Rapid Ride alone hit 1.87 million passengers for the 12 months ending this past June.

Perhaps Benton can explain what is so horribly wrong with buses that we have no option but to replace them with a modern streetcar? Exactly what makes a modern streetcar system $28 million-a-mile better than a successful modern bus system?

It can’t be environmental concerns. Albuquerque rightfully takes pride in its green Rapid Ride buses—diesel-electric hybrids with high mileage and extremely low emissions. A streetcar would run on electricity, which New Mexico generates mostly by burning coal. The emissions from PNM’s coal-fired plants in the Four Corners area have huge carbon footprints and help give San Juan County some of the nation’s worst air. Plus, you’d have to cause more carbon emissions to manufacture those streetcars and their metal rails. Our eco-friendly buses are already on the job.

It can’t be capacity. Rapid Ride buses hold 86 passengers. A modern streetcar, according to Leland’s report, can handle a whopping 14 more riders.

It’s not like Central is being ignored by the city’s Transit Department. But other parts of the city—the Westside, the Valley and the Northeast Heights—need a lot more attention to solve their transportation deficits. Wouldn’t new expenditures be better spent in areas with more serious traffic problems than Nob Hill? Does Nob Hill even have traffic problems?

Benton told KRQE News 13, “We’ve pretty much decided to extend it [the transportation tax].” “We’ve” decided, Mr. Benton? I don’t recall the question being put to the public. Will the Council again break faith with voters by reneging on the promise that the transportation tax would not become a permanent levy?

I asked Councilor Benton’s office where he stood on letting voters make the decision about raising their taxes. We’re still trading messages as this article goes to press. That’s a question the Council will have to answer up front if this issue goes any further.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jims@alibi.com.

 

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