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Thread: Population and NM's new rail system

  1. #1

    Population and NM's new rail system

    People always say that you need a large population to do Mass transit, but I'm not so sure

    I was listening to NPR when the US population mark hit 300 million and Steve Berman, mayor of Gilbert, Ariz., the fastest-growing city in the United States talked about the population boom in his city, yet shunned the idea of Mass Transit saying "It's just not something we think about here in the southwest." However I'm glad to say that despite his bull headiness his neighbors to the East are responding to a growing population with foresight.

    I lived in New Mexico a couple of years ago, and the Governor Bill Richardson was strongly pushing a commuter rail service for Albuquerque and up to Santa Fe. To my surprise he actually managed to get it done (no small feat in a state legislature that only meets for 30 days/year)!

    They call it the Rail Runner (a play on Road Runner which is the state bird), and its already running From Belen, NM through ABQ into Sandoval County with a plan to expand it to Santa Fe by 2008. http://www.nmrailrunner.com/

    Now to let you know:
    Santa Fe has a population of about 61,000
    Albuquerque has a population of under 500,000
    Metro Region around ABQ (not including Santa Fe) is about 900,000

    Which makes ABQ aprox. the same size ad Cleveland with a significantly smaller population in the sub/exurbs.

    The rail seems to be quite popular, although they're only running it on weekdays so far (and it's still at the low introductory price of $2/ride). If this works I don't see why every city of this size and bigger shouldn't do the same thing!

    But what do you think... is there a size limit for mass Transit? Is this project doomed to be a drain on the States resources?


    BTW in ABQ, the city is seeking input on which designs they should choose for the new Light rail that they're going to be building soon...(Source).

    http://media.abqtrib.com/albq/conten..._streetcar.jpg

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    Last edited by NHPlanner; 10 Nov 2006 at 4:37 PM. Reason: leeched image removed

  2. #2
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Ah! Its nice to see New Mexico in the news - especially for something positive! Yes, the Rail Runner has been very successful so far, though not without its detractors. Largely it comes down to the "it can't pay for itself so its not worth using tax payers dollars for" argument, which I personally do not subscribe to. There are many reasons to subsidize mass transit, just as roads are subsidized now. Museums, for example, are not expected to make a profit, but people do not generally propose doing away with them becaause of it. I would think that the benefits of trannsit are much more easily quantified than museums (and I say this as one who works in the arts).

    A few additional comments:
    One of the most positive facets of the Rail Runner project making it to Santa Fe come 2008 is that it will actually be viable to coimmute from Albuquerque. Right now it takes just shy of an hour to commute by car at 75 mph which is just not feasible for many. Housing costs in Santa Fe are out of control (over $400K median house value) but saalaries remain low (AMI is $42.2k). Santa Fe is known for its art galleries, for example, but the majority of New Mexican artists that show there live in Albuquerque because they cannot afford it. The Rail Runner makes the idea of a more regional economy much more viable. The same is true of being able to commute to ABQ or SF from Belen, Los Lunas and Isleta Pueblo to the South. So, to answer your questionabout being a drain on the State's resources, I think the development of a more regional economy will actually bolster job growth by uniting what has historicaly been isolated population islands with relatively independent economies. It will be interesting to see what revenue is generated from this over, say, the next decade.

    With regards to the population of the Albuquerque mtro region, it is also important to know that this population is VERY spread out. I call Albuquerque the one-story city because there are very few multi-story structures. Housing in particular is almost entirely single level. This makes ideas such as light rail (the current design now put forth is officiallly an "electric streetcar") extremely important for many different reasons. I worked a little on this project last year and got very excited about it. In addition to the streetcar, the City also began a few years ago running what they call Rapid Ride, an express, articulated bus that is very efficient for commuters. They are using Rapid Ride in part to test areas that could be well-suited for streetcars in the future and they also offer free wireless internet. The station stops are quite ugly IMHO, but you can't have everything.

    Still, Albuqueurque continues to sprawl and expends large amounts of its tax base to extend roads, sewer lines, build new schools, etc. when we could be investing this in the infill of the City's existing footprint. The City has adopted a Smart Growth policy toward growth, so we will see what impact this has over the coming years. I would say already in the 8 years I have lived here that the city has seen great improvement in filling in, reviving the downtown, and introducing transit. House prices are still quite high compared to salaries, however, and this is what has driven much of the sprawling growth on the West Side where houses are generally more "affordable". The irony is that people think they are getting a deal, but with gas prices, wear and tear on your car, insurance, and time spent commuting, life out there really isn't all that affordable afterall. Still, we live downtown and make a little more than AMI, but cannot afford to buy the $250k plus prices being asked for houses in this area.

    Thanks Big Green Scott for posting this!
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  3. #3
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    Population and NM's new Rail System

    I think that the line going to Santa Fe is probably as much of a political show as it is a logical attempt to reduce traffic or air pollution. It goes something like this: "See, here is a physical manifestation of my accomplishments as Governor!" It's also good for the tourists and might even be good enough for visiting dignitaries coming into the Capitol. It’s a big show nonetheless. Everyone goes to Santa Fe. I would conclude that this rail line is a special case. It’s a start, but not a means to an end.

    As a person who has lived in New Mexico for six years (Gallup) and back East (now Boston), it never ceases to amaze me the phenomenal amount of stress and aggravation people will put up with to commute to the suburbs. Albuquerque is turning into another Los Angeles with its traffic. Although Los Angeles and Albuquerque both have a network of buses that carry people, (mostly those who can't afford cars), I would not want to make the argument that the air is any better because of the bus system. Oh, and the traffic is still much worse in Los Angeles but give it some time. Technically the air might be cleaner with the buses, but who can tell? Scientists? People don't ride the bus because they are fighting for clean air - trust me. Albeit, some do ride because it is less stressful than driving. As an environmentalist, riding the bus just makes me feel worse (makes me want to go out and get a car) because of the thick black smoke belching forth from buses. I rely on my senses.

    In the West, infrastructure is built with the assumption that the automobile will always be around. We have reached a point where even thoughtful people have difficulty wrapping their minds around a life without cars. This is especially true in the West. I'm glad that Albuquerque is promoting "smart growth." I would be happier to see the focus of public planning and support in the form of tax credits or straight-out payments to people who live near where they work. Let's also use some public money for cutting edge visionary planning to help corporations with conscience to plan integrated working/living communities. I know a lot of people work "on the road" as salespersons or delivery folk etc., but let's start somewhere, right?

    Building mass transport systems out west to support commuters just puts a band aid on the real problem. The problem is that people design their lives with a built in requirement to travel too far, too often. We're on a road to nowhere. C'mon let's ride....right?

    Mass transport is great if it comes to be as part of a coherent overall plan. With no plan, it just aids in promoting a concept that has no future (sprawl). It's like giving people a reward for doing something unsupportable in the first place.

    I'd like to develop my thoughts further along the line of why people travel so much (to experience better aesthetics) which is easier to remedy and/or to separate themselves from groups of people (various reasons) which will be much harder to combat. Our laws don't allow de jure segregation and can't prevent the de facto kind, but I think the desire to separate from other “kinds” of people is a complex discussion and fodder for another thread..
    Last edited by Nate; 11 Nov 2006 at 2:05 PM. Reason: wrong word

  4. #4
    Cyburbian munibulldog's avatar
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    I had a job offer with the City of Santa Fe, and really wanted to make it work, however the housing costs were just too high. I usually walk to work and there was absolutely nothing affordable within two miles from the work location. The best I could do was a manufactured home out by the airport, but even then it would have doubled my housing costs from where I am now, with pretty much the same pay rate. I even looked at getting a hybrid and driving close to an hour and just could not stomach the cost vs home quality and the hassle of driving.

    I find this very puzzling, where is all this wealth coming from and how does the average family survive? It seems like people are willing to mortgage their lives away. Or are the Californians to blame, selling off their $0.75M bungalows and moving away from the coast?

    I did not know about this train at the time (about a year ago) but it might have changed my decision not to move there, assuming that there are better house prices near the train stations on the way.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    Well, there is a common perception that mass transit needs a high population density to be workable, but the origin of that idea was actually flawed.
    It comes from the CATS, the grandfather of all modelling studies. They mapped out all the mass transit and noted that it appeared to end where population densities fell, so they concluded that since it was a trend, it was desired (one of their base assumptions) and concluded that the population density of the border was the needed population density.
    That border, however, coincided not with the population ensity, but rather with a political boundary marking the edge of where bus funding could be gathered from. On the map is a little outlier island of transit. This isn't an enclave of high density, it's a community that had negotiated with Chicago to get transit. They run transit at quite low densities near Zurich on pulse timetables. They also manage to run transit in rather low density areas in the U.S. as well. Financing issues are brought up, but running a bus that depreciates over time during off-peak hours at low capacity (rather than leaving it in the garage to rust away after it makes one trip during the commuter rushes) really isn't that much different from a desolate highway or parking lot during the off peak.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian jresta's avatar
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    Transit will never reduce traffic. The only thing that will reduce auto traffic is higher energy prices or more expensive/scarce parking.

    Transit is just another mode. If you're in a growing region you can choose to add capacity with transit or add capacity with roads/parking.

    A new transportation corridor will attract it's own development geared toward that mode of transportation. If it's a high-speed freight corridor with a direct link to a port one might expect to see large-scale manufacturing or warehouse development along the route.

    A light-rail route linked to a downtown with a large employment base might expect to see mid to high density residential development.

    In the end i don't think population matters but i think, in the case of New Mexico, that a string of relatively dense towns connected to important commercial destinations is all that matters. After all, we're talking about commuter rail here, not a subway.
    Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Nate View post
    I think that the line going to Santa Fe is probably as much of a political show as it is a logical attempt to reduce traffic or air pollution....It’s a start, but not a means to an end.
    I agree this is not a good means to an end. I do not however, see that its primary value (in the eyes of potential commuters) lies in cleaning up the environment. I think it is more economically driven in the sense of getting people to Santa Fe jobs (being the state capitol, there are many employment opportunities there) without shouldering the burden of gas, increased insurance (the longer you commute, the higher premium you pay), and and service from wear and tear on your vehicle. In a state where mmost people barely eek out an existence month to month, this is actually no small factor.

    I might also speculate that the state may be missing out on employing high quality candidates because potential employees are both unwilling to commute this far from Albuquerque or even Bernalillo daily and unable to afford housing in Santa Fe and the immediate surrounds (Eldorado, Cerillos, etc. are all unaffordable to most). I saw a mid-level planning position for the City of Santa Fe about a year or two ago that paid $32,000/year. With a median home price of over $400k, there is no way that person can live near Santa Fe, unless their spouse makes ALOT of money.

    Quote Originally posted by Nate View post
    Technically the air might be cleaner with the buses, but who can tell? Scientists? People don't ride the bus because they are fighting for clean air - trust me. Albeit, some do ride because it is less stressful than driving. As an environmentalist, riding the bus just makes me feel worse (makes me want to go out and get a car) because of the thick black smoke belching forth from buses. I rely on my senses.
    You are right about commuting within the City of Albuquerque. Most who ride the bus do so because they have no other choice. When I ride the bus, its not generally a jubilant experience. The Rapid-ride buses are a real improvement and are actually well suited for commuting as they make fewer stops and effectively link higher density population areas (which in ABQ is still not all that dense) with job centers. All of these units use a hybrid engine, for what its worth, and about 50% of the regular buses are now natural gas powered. The electric streetcar will be zero emissions (here at least - the issue of belching smoke from the Four Corners power plant is another question...)

    I have serious mixed feelings about the electric streetcar project myself as I worry that people are still not so inconvenienced by commuting within the city. Connecting the Westside with the rest of Albuquerque is probably the most likely location (which it will do) as traffic is quite bad and the drive long and tedious. Still, connecting downtown to Nob Hill (another denser residential and commercial area) seems less effective unless they extend it further east (which they do not plan to do in phase one). Downtown and Nob hill are not very far from one another and the Rapid Ride does a fine job of moving people between them. Nob Hill is pretty well off, too, so the need is not really there either - just the novelty of riding the rails which may wear off after the initial excitement.

    Quote Originally posted by Nate View post
    I'm glad that Albuquerque is promoting "smart growth." I would be happier to see the focus of public planning and support in the form of tax credits or straight-out payments to people who live near where they work. Let's also use some public money for cutting edge visionary planning to help corporations with conscience to plan integrated working/living communities.
    There are many that feel this way and I wish the Smart Growth agenda had some real teeth (like Portland's UGB). The most we have now, which is being challenged in every court the opposition can find, is a system of graduate costs for developers that build on the fringe - costs that go toward extending roads, sewers, gas lines and building schools. Infill construction enjoys greatly reduced costs, but I think we could be even more agressive about this. A recent visit to Pittsburgh showed me just how assertive cities can be in offering incentives to improve existing areas. Still, the city has begun to function better (physically) since I moved here 8 years ago and the spaces are filling in.

    The last two years have seen a big increase in housing and land prices, however, particularly within the urban core. I fear that this will make it less and less likely for developers to do these smaller scale projects that will contribute to the overall improvement of the urban fabric. The result will be a renewed emphasis on building at the fringes. There is also a regional issue with this - even though Albuquerque discourages growth at the edges, the neighboring municipalities don't and so Rio Rancho, Edgewood, Tijeras, Los Lunas, etc. are going full-spead ahead with massive developments. I co-authored an article that will be out soon in the New Mexico Historical Review analyzing Albuquerque growth patterns and which has some bearing on this. Our regional planning group, MRCOG, has been pushing for a regional adoption of a planned growth strategy, but not everyone is on board, and the group has no power to enforce, just to make recommendations.

    Quote Originally posted by Nate View post
    Mass transport is great if it comes to be as part of a coherent overall plan. With no plan, it just aids in promoting a concept that has no future (sprawl). It's like giving people a reward for doing something unsupportable in the first place.
    I agree. To be fair, though, the electric streetcar and the Rapid Ride programs are specifically in response to the "Centers and Corridors" component of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Comprehensive Plan, so it is actually part of a larger, phased public transit strategy. Whether it is ill-conceived, though, remains to be seen...
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

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