Rail Runner in talks with governor to reduce ticket prices

Commuter rail line could use federal pandemic relief to cover fares

By: - April 7, 2022 5:05 am

The Rail Runner arrives at the Santa Fe Depot on Wednesday. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Even without funding from the Legislature, New Mexico’s commuter rail line may lower ticket prices to help low-income people get around without having to pay rising fuel costs.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asked lawmakers to set aside money to reduce ticket costs for the Rail Runner, to make it a more affordable commuting options as gas prices remain high and “as part of her focus on delivering economic relief to New Mexicans,” Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s spokesperson, said Wednesday.

The Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which operates the rail line, has been speaking with Lujan Grisham about “a potential initiative to reduce fares,” Rio Metro RTD Communications Manager Augusta Meyers said Tuesday.

“Rio Metro thinks reduction of fares would be a good thing, we’ve been working with the governor’s office to look at the potential to do that, but nothing’s been decided yet,” Meyers said. There are no solid numbers decided on how much the fares could be reduced, she said.

The initiative is meant to give more affordable transportation options to New Mexicans based on the fact that gas prices have “skyrocketed” recently, Meyers said.

The Senate Finance Committee had unanimously approved the junior bill on Tuesday morning, but not before cutting $1 million out of it which would have allowed for lower fares to ride the Rail Runner, the state’s only commuter rail line that runs between Santa Fe and Belen.

Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, moved to strike the provision in the bill that would have provided $1 million to the Rio Metro RTD “in temporarily decreasing fares, expanding schedules and improving operations” according to the bill.

“While we’re disappointed in the Senate Finance Committee’s action on the measure, the governor’s office is working with Rail Runner operators to identify a way to reduce fares and support commuters, keeping more money in New Mexicans’ pockets – as soon as those details are finalized and in place, we’ll have more information for you and the public,” Meyers Sackett said.

The Rail Runner arrives at the Santa Fe Depot on Wednesday. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

The Rail Runner operates 11 trains every weekday, six southbound trains and five northbound trains on Saturdays, and four southbound trains and three northbound trains on Sundays.

Sharer said he pulled the funding out of the reworked junior bill because it wasn’t in the original bill passed in the regular session earlier this year and because the Rail Runner has federal money to spend.

“We don’t need to spend another million dollars on it, as I see it,” Sharer said. “Currently, the Rail Runner has very low ridership, and would it make sense to have more riders on it? Maybe. But I don’t think that this achieves that goal.”

Rio Metro RTD has received just over $68 million in COVID relief, from the CARES Act and other federal pandemic relief, Meyers said. She said they have about $16 million of that money left, which “can go for anything that helps keep the Rail Runner sustainable.”

They used some of it to pay for rail workers’ salaries when the Rail Runner was shut down, Meyers said. But the Rail Runner only has about 50% of the riders it had before the pandemic started, Meyers said, “and we face high gas prices too, for gas for the trains.”

According to the Federal Transit Administration, if a transit system waives fares for riders, it can use money from the CARES Act or the 2021 pandemic relief bill to pay for operations that those fares would have covered.

The Rail Runner can use that money “for operations in any way they see fit,” said Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup. He said the Rail Runner should use those federal funds before any state money.

The intent of the $1 million was to help people out by making the Rail Runner more accessible, and to get more people riding it, said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces said.

“It seems like a good intention,” he said.

Charles Sallee, deputy budget director for the Legislative Finance Committee, told lawmakers that LFC evaluated the Rail Runner a couple years ago and “found that they needed to be more strategic about boosting ridership.”

In Fiscal Year 2018, he said, fares accounted for only 6% of their $34 million in revenue. Rio Metro mostly relies on Gross Receipts Taxes revenue and federal grants, he said.

“There’s a massive influx of federal funds that can be used to help support improving the use of the Rail Runner,” Sallee said. “The money that they received from the federal government was basically to backfill that 6% plus, so it’s broad operational support for the Rail Runner. There’s nothing in state statute that restricts their ability to do the kinds of things that were contemplated with the million dollars.”

The Committee voted 9-2 in favor of Sharer’s motion.

When the bill got to the Senate Floor, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, DTS-Albuquerque, introduced a floor amendment to undo the Committee’s amendments and put the money back in the bill.

He said the Committee’s amendment “would make public transportation even less accessible and less affordable for low-income, hard-working New Mexicans in the central Rio Grande corridor.”

“We have a cultural problem, where it is totally acceptable to just talk down about, make jokes about, underfund, undervalue both the Rail Runner and the Spaceport,” Candelaria said. “We can all have debates about how those entities are run, but the state has made a commitment to these projects. … If we say we care about inflation, if we say we care about the rising cost of fuel, we should be doing everything possible to increase public transportation. Not defund it.”

The Senate rejected his amendment in a 34-4 vote, and passed the bill without the Rail Runner funding.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.