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?
“So you sit back and say, well you know, let’s not be sort of hypocritical about this. Roads don’t pay for themselves. You know we’re all paying [the] gasoline tax.”
Making a Connection
After several studies, it was decided the best line for the Rail Runner would be an already existing piece of track owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight railroad company. Rael says the first challenge posed to them was what made them think BNSF would let them run on their tracks.
“Our first approach to this was that we were going to lease the track or lease time on the track,” Rael says.
“So our first meeting with the BNSF was one of those classic meetings. We walk in and they say, ‘yeah sure you’re going to build commuter rail, okay, well this is like the fifteenth request we’ve had this week.’”
Rael admits they had a difficult time early on getting BNSF to believe they were actually going forward with a commuter rail project. Luckily for them the governor was able to step in again and get them a meeting with the people they needed to talk to, not that it helped them all that much to begin with.
“Their first question to us was, ‘OK, so you guys want to run commuter trains. What’s your schedule?’ And we’re looking at them and I said ‘Well, we’re thinking about running some trains in the morning and in the afternoon and the middle of the day,’ I mean what else could there be?!”
Rael says it was obviously a scenario where one side didn’t think the other knew what they were talking about, but he said they listened when he mentioned the equipment.
“It was when I said to them, ‘Gentlemen, we’ve ordered $35 million worth of equipment from Bombardier to build rail cars. We’re expecting another five locomotives that were ordered from MotivePower in Boise, Idaho, that are going to be arriving here and I need a place to park those.’
“And I said, ‘I don’t know what else it’s going to take to show you we’re serious about this, but we’re serious about this, we’ve ordered the equipment.’”
The BNSF’s response? “Are you kidding us?”
After that, the debate was on. Rael says the line they planned to use for the Rail Runner was actually a less-used spur of BNSF’s transcontinental line, which allowed them a little more leeway when dealing with the freight railroad.
“I think what they finally came to realize is that [they were] paying a lot of money to run trains and to maintain that track,” Rael says.
“And after some negotiations and discussions we finally said, ‘Look are you guys willing to sell it?’”
And the answer was yes. The deal was negotiated for a section of track from Belen all the way to the Colorado border — almost 300 miles of track — for $75 million. The track for phase one was purchased first and cost $50 million. The track for phase two cost $20 million and the remainder, some 200 miles of track was purchased for $5 million. In the end it came out to be about $250,000 a mile for class four track, which traverses three-quarters of New Mexico and goes through the heart of its most populated areas.
“I keep telling people it’s the deal of the century as it relates to track purchases,” Rael says.
“But it clearly set us on the right path. Now we had the money, the governor and his backing … and we had the track.
“And once we had those three things in place, then it was just a matter of executing and getting it done.”
Dispatching the Plan
Once the locomotives and cars were built and the track was purchased, Rael says the Rail Runner was only starting to get moving. First it had to overcome some of the uniqueness that made it special. One of these things was that about 75 percent of the rail line would be traversing Native American land.
“These are sovereign nations under the federal government’s jurisdiction.
“So even though the track was owned by the private company, the BNSF, and the government had just purchased it, we had to go in and negotiate transactions with each of the pueblos individually for use of the track, use of the corridor, etc.”
Rael says the nations were nervous because the track would run right through the pueblos, not like an interstate that would run around them.
“There are a lot of cultural issues, a lot of privacy issues that are associated with this,” Rael says.
“Needless to say, we did a lot of work trying to get everybody on board, and we were able to do it.”
The Rail Runner began service along the phase one corridor in July of 2006, just 25 months after the governor had made a 24-month promise to create a commuter rail service between Belen and Bernalillo.
And Rael says the deal came right down to the wire, “We signed the BNSF agreement about a month or two before we actually began running on the track.”
However, Rail Runner’s difficulties were just beginning. Even though the tracks were locally owned, BNSF was still dispatching the line out of its facilities in Fort Worth, which caused problems in the beginning.
“We owned the track but we still had to remember that [BNSF] was doing dispatch out of Fort Worth. Because the BNSF is such a big corporation, because of the labor contracts, you could never count on who was going to be on dispatch on this corridor,” Rael says.
Rael says that even though they had a contract stating the commuter service had priority, every so often a freight train would come along during the commuter route resulting in the Rail Runner stuck on a siding for nearly 30 minutes waiting for it to go by. While it didn’t happen often, the situation arose often enough that concerns were raised and Rael says they decided something had to be done differently.
So Rael says they contacted BNSF and said they were going to dispatch the commuter line themselves, which the freight railroad agreed to.
“At that point [BNSF’s] business model had changed dramatically because of the economy and they were not moving that many freight trains through this corridor anyway,” Rael says.
“And they knew they had a freight easement so we couldn’t unreasonably hold their trains and we wouldn’t do that.”
The Rail Runner took over dispatching in December of 2008 and Rael says that at that point he knew they were completely in charge of their own destiny, with a fair amount of credit to the BNSF.
“To the BN’s credit, and I will tell them unequivocally, the BN, once we had made the deal to get into this relationship where we owned the track and they had a freight easement,” Rael says, “they became completely a different partner. Extremely supportive. Very eager to work with us to make it work. Quite frankly some will tell you they were amazed at how fast we did it.”
While phase one was getting up and underway, the completion of Rail Runner’s phase two was being undertaken, which had its own “uniqueness” as Rael puts it. While phase one ran along existing BNSF track, for phase two,18 miles of new track would have to be constructed along with the usual prep work. Oh, did I mention the mountain range that was in the way?
Rael says fortunately they found a way through, if not around, the problem, “We found a canyon in [the] mountain range that actually gave us the opportunity to keep the grades at 3 percent.
“It was a perfect corridor to do what we needed to get done.”
Then Rael says they had to deal with I-25. As he points out, most cities around the United States have a redundancy to their interstate system, access and frontage roads that you can operate on, should a problem arise on the interstate. This wasn’t the case with I-25.
“We don’t have relief routes around I-25. Mostly because we have these federal lands, these sovereign nations between us,” Rael says.
“So I-25 is the only way to get to Santa Fe and back. If you have a major mishap on I-25 that shuts the interstate down, guess what, you’re stuck there.
“Once you get north of Bernalillo there’s no other way to move cars around. So there’s more and more incidents,” Rael says.
“Once there is an accident on I-25 north of Bernalillo, you’re sitting there as long as the accident dictates that you sit there and what we were experiencing more and more was a lot of that happening.”
Rael says they convinced the DOT to let them use the median of I-25 as a right-of-way for the Rail Runner. Now the train runs right between the cars as they move in either direction — a great selling point.
“Oh, absolutely,” Rael exclaims with a mischievous grin.
“We have the train down the middle of I-25. We have tunnels on both ends where it comes into the interstate and up out of the interstate as you get into Santa Fe.”
Entering Santa Fe was another “unique” problem for the Rail Runner as due to it being one of the oldest cities in the country special precautions had to be taken. Luckily the city had purchased a little-used short line track to convert into a walking trail. Instead, this trail became the entrance point for commuter rail into Santa Fe.
“It was a really fortuitous situation for us because now all we had to do was go in there,” Rael says.
“So we tore the whole bed out — everything out — and rebuilt everything. [We] left some of the old trellises and some of the old landmarks of the railroad and created a trail alongside the track so people could use it as a walking path.
“We just had our three-year anniversary in July for phase one,” Rael exhales with a smile. “We’ve only been running to Santa Fe now for less than a year, a little over six months, almost seven months, and it’s been a tremendous success.”
Keeping it Running
While its neighbor Phoenix might be getting more attention, this desert region is growing quite quickly as well, with development happening in several rural communities along the Rail Runner line. With the system up and running and its popularity growing, now it only needed a dedicated funding source to keep its trademark locomotives and cars flying between Belen and Santa Fe.
Rael says the Rail Runner was originally funded by CMAQ (Congestion Management and Air Quality) federal dollars as a three-year demonstration program. But those three years expired last June.
“So the first three years that was one of the constant albatrosses,” Rael admits.
“How are we going to pay for this?”
So with the governor’s support they embarked on an effort to get an eighth-cent gross receipts tax on the ballot last November to support the commuter rail system and transit connections to it.
“We went all over the place,” Rael says of their efforts to drum up support.
“We had created a regional transit area for this area. And under that guise is how we passed it.
“When the economy could have been the worst in the country we had an eighth-of-a-cent initiative on the ballot, but we passed it.”
Rael explains that not only did they pass it, but it passed in all the counties Rail Runner passes through, proving the commuter line had popular support.
“[I knew] if we got the tax passed we were home free,” Rael says.
“Now we could fund the train operationally. [And] the citizens love it.”