Papa Light-Rail: Where Art Thou?

Eric Griego
6 min read
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In politics, success has many fathers, especially when it comes to big projects like arenas, baseball stadiums and building a light-rail system. Ask local leaders to show up at a press conference announcing a big new project and its like Fathers' Day at Furrs Cafeteria. Yet, ask them to sponsor funding (like a new tax) for one of these big amenities—and suddenly these projects become awkward, bucktoothed orphans.

As talk of building a light-rail system in Albuquerque becomes more commonplace, supporters are looking for someone to take full custody of light-rail—including finding a way to pay for it. If the mayor and City Council are serious about getting a light-rail system built in Albuquerque anytime soon, they will have to champion a funding source for what will be one of the largest public infrastructure investments in the history of our city. Accordingly, the leadership to get it done will have to be bigger, bolder and more courageous.

Despite its big price tag and the sticker shock that will likely hit voters in raising funds for the project—building a light-rail system is worth it. It will transform our city in a way no other public investment has or can: by lessening our dependence on cars, encouraging a more community-based city, and attracting economic development and tourism. Property along rail lines becomes prime for redevelopment—especially in blighted areas. Urban retail and restaurants become viable because of the high pedestrian traffic and reduced need for parking. DUI rates go down because people have a viable, safe alternative to drinking irresponsibly. Air quality improves because of fewer cars on the road, and for those driving, the commute is not as hectic. Infill housing of all kinds becomes more accessible. Perhaps the strangest, and one of the greatest, side effects of all is people from different backgrounds, neighborhoods and professions actually sit in a confined space and talk to each other.

With these and the myriad other reasons why cities build light-rail systems, one has to wonder why we haven't already built it. Cities half our size all around the world have great light-rail systems. So what's the problem? Light-rail don't come cheap.

In the old days, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which oversees federal involvement in public transit, would pony up 70 to 80 percent of the costs of building a light-rail system. Nowadays, getting funding is a little more challenging—any city that doesn’t come to the table with a guaranteed funding source for at least 50 percent of the cost won’t be anywhere near the top of the list for FTA support. Depending on the technology used, available right-of-way and geography, a good system can cost anywhere from $20 to $40 million per mile. For Albuquerque's planned 10-15 mile route from the Westside to the Uptown area, that could mean as much as $600 million dollars. To have a snowball's chance of getting the FTA to fund half of our system, we need a guaranteed revenue source of at least $300 million. To put that into perspective, that is about four times what we spend in any given year for all of the city's capital needs from streets to buses to fire stations.

The good news is that the State Legislature recently passed legislation that would allow cities to form regional transit districts (sub-governmental bodies that pool local resources to get the most bang for their buck) and put funding a transit system on the ballot for voters to approve. City leaders could put a proposal on the 2006 ballot that would ask voters to fund our half of building a light-rail system—but that will take some courage and leadership on the part of the City Council and the mayor to put the proposal on the ballot.

Voters ultimately will decide whether it is worth another quarter cent sales tax. If the voters pass the proposal, it could generate as much as $300 million over the next 10 years—more than enough to show the FTA we’re serious about building light-rail. If, however, no local elected official is prepared to take the political heat for putting the light-rail tax before voters, then it won't happen—plain and simple.

The mayor and others in the community are asking that Gov. Bill Richardson use part of the potential several hundred million dollar state budget surplus (thanks to increased oil and gas revenues) to pay for light-rail in Albuquerque. Given his own priorities, including commuter rail, as well as many statewide demands, it is unlikely the governor could offer more than a fraction of the cost of building such a transit system in Albuquerque. So it’s back to building support for a local option light-rail tax.

Even if we commit to funding the system and generate community-wide support for it, there will still be obstacles. It took Salt Lake City, Denver and Dallas several tries and more than a decade to get voters to approve building a light-rail system. Dallas tried and failed at least once before voters finally agreed to fund a light-rail system connecting the city's downtown employment center to neighborhoods and suburbs further away. As former Dallas City Councilor Sandy Greyson once told me, “Very few Dallas residents saw light-rail as a priority. Now we can't build the stations fast enough. Everyone wants one.”

In addition to finding a funding source, we have to change the perception of public transportation in Albuquerque. Who would have thought that Texans would get out of their big honking trucks and ride light-rail to work or the movies? Twenty years ago a group of community leaders and public officials started down a track that has transformed how Dallasites look at commuting and public transportation. And if they can get Explorer-driving, big-government-hating, freedom-loving Dallasites to ride light-rail—we sure as heck can do it here in Burque.

To work, public transportation has to serve more than the transit-dependent. It must be attractive, convenient and dependable for seniors, students and professionals. In short: everyone. Light-rail isn't a “build it and they will ride” undertaking. It’s about saying to residents, developers and businesses that we are making a fixed investment that will not change at the whim of the next mayor or City Council. It takes a community-wide effort. We cannot make it happen without the business community, city and county government, and advocates for smart growth, infill and public transit.

Whoever champions not just the idea of light-rail, but a realistic way of paying for it, will be long-remembered as he or she who birthed Albuquerque's transformation into the modern transportation age. Like Sandy Greyson and the many other local leaders in cities across the country who had the courage to fight for light-rail, those who get on board early and earnestly will leave a real legacy after they leave office. Let's hope light-rail won’t be orphaned by political squeamishness.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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