The Streetcar Railroad

Have We Got A Deal For You!

Jim Scarantino
5 min read
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If you are willing to ride the bus up and down Central for $10,000, you can help save Albuquerque a couple hundred million dollars. To find out how, keep reading.

First, you need to know that when you were distracted by Wilson vs. Madrid and the looming Democratic takeover of Congress, Albuquerque’s City Council rammed through the largest tax increase in years. The night before the mid-term election, councilors passed a $340 million tax hike. At the same time, they committed you to paying for a $270 million streetcar line where Rapid Ride buses already run.

The Council won’t confess to raising your taxes. They prefer to call it an “extension of the Transportation Infrastructure Tax.” Translated, that means the tax Albuquerque voters narrowly approved in 1999, which was supposed to expire in 2009, now continues until 2020. The original sunset date was a promise to taxpayers to convince us to accept further taxes. The council broke faith with taxpayers when it didn’t have the decency to ask us whether we wanted the tax continued for another decade. Why the double-cross? Read on.

As they were digging into our pockets without our consent, the Council also rushed through a hugely expensive plan to build a streetcar line on Central from Tingley Beach to Nob Hill and from the University of New Mexico to the airport.

No one knows what this thing will cost. Before the first public meeting on Sept. 20, City Transit Director Greg Payne put the bill at $224 million. When the City Council voted on Nov. 6, the cost was estimated at $270 million. In that period, the price swelled $950,000 a day.

The $270 million to run streetcars where buses already go does not include untold millions in interest and operating costs. If the Rail Runner is any indication, we can expect a 90 percent taxpayer subsidy. (How often have you taken the Rail Runner since the fanfare and free tickets faded away?)

If you’ve been reading carefully, you noticed how hurriedly this massive project has been shoved down the tracks. In less than seven weeks, the City Council hit us with an enormous tax bill and committed those funds to an equally enormous public works project that will benefit relatively few people. (You could be one of those lucky few! See closing paragraphs for details!)

The council spent more time debating toys for pets and other inane details of Councilor Sally Mayer’s animal law than it has spent talking to the public about raising and spending more than a quarter billion dollars.

To be fair, three city councilors demonstrated respect for taxpayers. Michael Cadigan, Brad Winter and Don Harris voted to put this issue to public referendum. Harris questioned the rush to tax and spend. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as an emergency streetcar system,” he said. Winter rightly observed that the Council was demonstrating contempt for taxpayers by cutting them out of the process.

There is, in fact, no emergency on Central. The traffic nightmares are on the Westside or elsewhere in our community. We’re talking a mountain of money to replace fancy buses we just bought with what amounts to the same thing on steel rails instead of rubber tires. This costly fashion adjustment will come at the expense of truly necessary projects.

Neighborhood leaders have organized protests and may try legal measures to halt this reallocation of traffic funds. Another possibility is stopping the financing bonds to cover the project’s upfront costs. But this comes after the fact—after the train, so to speak, has left the station.

We’ve grown to expect such imperious conduct from Mayor Martin Chavez. But this is an unfortunate display of arrogance by City Council President Martin Heinrich. We’ve yet to hear him explain why he doesn’t trust taxpayers to participate in deciding how their own money should be spent.

Which brings us to the enticing proposal at the beginning of this column. The $270 million streetcar project will serve the same people currently riding the Rapid Ride bus system. By the city’s wildest guess, only an additional 7,100 will step onto streetcars who, for one reason or another, avoid buses on Central Avenue. Never mind where these people will come from. I’m hoping to address that matter in my next column.

So assuming another 7,100 riders materialize, the cost of each one comes to more than $38,000! ($270 million divided by 7,100. At least City Council can’t keep you from doing the math).

Thus, the rich offer: It would be $200 million cheaper to pay these people $10,000 each to use the bus system than to lay streetcar track.

Now you’re getting an idea why the council railroaded this boondoggle when you weren’t looking.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail

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