When I went to Albuquerque for our November cover story, I really didn’t know what to expect. In my time at Mass Transit I’d never covered a rail-only agency before and Lawrence Rael isn’t your typical, dyed-in-the-wool transit guy. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by both Rael and his system.
The former deputy secretary of transportation for New Mexico, Rael has been involved in the political end of public transportation for much of his career. After spending several years in Washington, D.C., working as a senatorial staffer, he returned to New Mexico and Albuquerque where he would spend more than a decade as the city’s chief administrative officer. Rael left the city office for the chance to work as the executive director for the Mid-Region Council of Governments, which put him in the hot seat for a governor who wanted commuter rail in his state.
“Well I would just candidly say that without [Governor Richardson’s] desire and direction and support for this commuter system, we probably wouldn’t have a commuter rail system in New Mexico,” Rael admits.
Funding the Runner
Governor Richardson’s support helped convince the state legislature to invest in the commuter rail concept, which allowed Rael and his staff to put together a commuter rail line with no federal funding — the Rail Runner Express was built completely with state and local funds.
“Part of it was what we’ve seen before in that trying to get the federal government, the FTA [Federal Transit Administration], to really invest in these systems is really a tall order, especially when you look at states like New Mexico,” Rael says.
“You know, when you are competing against major metropolitan areas like LA, Chicago, Detroit, New York, what have you, we’re never going to pencil out on the same level playing field because we’re a rural state by and large.
“We have some very unique issues in New Mexico that are different than any other state, but that’s not the criteria that are typically used to evaluate whether a federal government investment is going to be made in a system.”
Rael says the early goal was to get a system in place and then apply for federal funds because one criterion for federal investment was matching local funds. The system was planned in two phases for a total of $400 million, phase one being a system from Belen to Bernalillo for $125 million and phase two being from Bernalillo to Santa Fe for $275 million.
“We thought well, let’s make the first investment in this first phase and then show the FTA that we’re committed to this, that we’ve put money in it, and then maybe we can then avail ourselves of some funds for phase two,” Rael says.
After a 2003 transportation bill worth $1.3 billion was passed, the Rail Runner had its money. With the New Mexico Department of Transportation (DOT) contracting with the Mid-Region Council of Governments to implement the service, Rael says they were off.
Rael admits that there was some initial sentiment that they were building a new commuter rail system no one would use and the usual claims of a transit boondoggle arose.
“It was a struggle,” Rael admits. “We began the program and started putting it together, but every time the legislative session came up we were being paraded up to Santa Fe to take the good and the bad with the project and justify this and justify that.
“You know it is amazing to me that we do public transportation as well as we do it in this country because you can go, as we’ve seen in the last presidential election, you can go and justify a road project with anything and you get money for it.
“I mean the threshold for justifying roads is so low in terms of federal funds, and even state dollars to some degree. But federal dollars, you go and try and put a public transportation program like this, whether it’s commuter rail or bus rapid transit or any public transportation and all of a sudden everybody wants a cost-benefit analysis. Everybody wants you to justify why you’re taking either a lane of roadway or laying track or what have you. And then the next question is why isn’t it paying for itself?