The New Mexico Rail Runner is a 97-mile commuter rail connecting downtown Albuquerque and Santa Fe, NM. Construction of the first phase of the project (from Bernalillo to Belen) began in 2005, on the tracks already in use by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight trains and the service began in December 2006. The second phase which stretched the Rail Runner service to Santa Fe, was completed in 2008.
Project Type:New Line Project Mode:Light Rail Average Weekday Riders:3,492 Length (mi):97.00
Economic Distress:0.91 Population Density (ppl/sq mi):363 Population Growth Rate (%):1.32
Employment Growth Rate (%):1.31 Market Size:856,643 Airport Travel Distance:3.8 Topography:12
Region:Southwest State:NM County:Valencia, Bernalillo, Sandoval, & Santa Fe
City:Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Belen, & Bernalillo Urban/Class Level:Metro Local Area:City Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Belen, & Bernalillo
Impact Area:The area within half mile of all the stations Transportation System:N/A GIS Lat/Long:35.081922 / -106.657594
Initial Study Date:2004 Post Constr. Study Date:2013
Constr. Start Date:2005 Constr. End Date:2008
Project Year of Expenditure (YOE): 2008 Planned Cost (YOE $):400,000,000
Actual Cost (YOE $):400,000,000 Actual Cost (curr $):443,421,430
NOTE: All pre/post dollar values are in 2013$
Select a region to display the conditions for that region:
NOTE: All impact dollar values are in 2013$
|Income (in $M's)||5.03||1.97||7.00|
|Output (in $M's)||8.34||6.50||14.84|
The New Mexico Rail Runner is a 97-mile, 14-station commuter rail service connecting downtowns Albuquerque and Santa Fe, NM. Construction of the first phase of the project (from Belen in Valencia County to Bernalillo in Sandoval County) began in 2005, on the tracks already in use by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight trains, and the service began in December 2006. The second phase, which extended the Rail Runner service to Santa Fe, was completed in 2008. The New Mexico Rail Runner is owned and managed by the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) and the Rio Metro Regional Transit District (RMRTD). Currently, Herzog Transit Service, Inc. is the contract operator of the Rail Runner system.
Plans for the construction of a commuter rail line in the Rio Grande Valley were announced in August 2003, and the $443.4 M cost of the project (the total cost of phase I and II converted into 2013 dollars) was paid for with state and local funds. The primary purpose of constructing a commuter rail line between Albuquerque and Santa Fe was to decrease traffic congestion on Interstate 25 during commuting hours and meet expected future demands for a transit option in the area. In 2008, an average of 1,907 commuters used the Rail Runner every weekday. By 2013, the ridership increased to 3,673 passengers for an average weekday.
As a direct result of the New Mexico Rail Runner project, it is estimated that new businesses and developments in the area have created 120 office and retail jobs. As of 2017, about 100 residential units have been developed near Rail Runner stations. It is anticipated that the developments around the stations will grow significantly when more of the development plans (currently in planning process) come to fruition.
2.1 Location & Transportation Connections
The 97-mile long New Mexico Rail Runner line comprises 14 stations, serving the valley of the Rio Grande River (from Belen to Santa Fe). The Rail Runner line runs almost entirely parallel to Interstate 25 from Belen to Santa Fe. The line also intersects the east-west Interstate 40 between the Downtown Albuquerque and Montano stations.
The Rail Runner’s route begins south in Valencia County, serving Belen and Los Lunas stations. From Valencia County, it enters Bernalillo County, serving Isleta Pueblo, Albuquerque International Sunport (Airport), Downtown Albuquerque, Montano and Los Ranchos village. The rail line then enters Sandoval County with stations at Sandia Pueblo, Downtown Bernalillo, Interstate 550 and Kewa Pueblo. The stations serving Santa Fe County opened in the second phase at State Route 599, Santa Fe South Capitol and Santa Fe Depot/Rail Yard stations.
The New Mexico Rail Runner has connections with local bus and shuttle systems at most of the stations (11 of 14 stations). The Downtown Albuquerque station is located near the Alvarado Transportation Center, which enables passengers to transfer to/from local buses, Greyhound buses, Amtrak Southwest Chief route trains (running from Chicago to Los Angeles through Albuquerque), and University of New Mexico campus shuttles.
The Rail Runner provides 22 roundtrips on weekdays, 11 roundtrips on Saturdays, and 7 roundtrips on Sundays. Besides the Bernalillo County/Sunport station, connections to the Albuquerque International Sunport (the region’s international airport) are provided from the downtown Albuquerque station via airport shuttles.
2.2 Community Character & Project Context
The New Mexico Rail Runner provides transit service to four counties (from Valencia County to Santa Fe County) within the Middle Rio Grande Valley. This area stretches along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico, with Albuquerque and Santa Fe as its largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA). Around 11% of the population in New Mexico are Native Americans belonging to 19 pueblos spread across the state. Four of these pueblos are located around the Albuquerque MSA.
34.7% of the land area within the state of New Mexico is owned by the federal government and about 22% of all the employment in the Albuquerque MSA and the Santa Fe MSA are government-related jobs. Another 10% of employment are with government contractors, which are directly paid by the federal government. Some of the major employers in the state are the local governments in cities, counties, and the state, University of New Mexico (UNM), Sandia National Laboratories, Air Force Research Laboratories, U.S. Department of Interior (including Indian Affairs, U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (including U.S. Forest Service).
In addition to government jobs, Albuquerque is known as the center for medical and healthcare industries within the state, with the only Level 1 Trauma Center at the UNM Health System, as well as other major medical services such as Presbyterian Hospital and Lovelace Women’s Hospital and Medical Center. The city is also the area’s shopping destination, with many major shopping malls located along Interstate 25 and Interstate 40. Office, real estate, tourism and hospitality industries are also major employers in the area.
Between 2004 and 2013, the combined employment of the four counties of Bernalillo, Sandoval, Santa Fe and Valencia increased by about 2.8%. During the same period, the combined per capita income and population of the four counties increased by 19% and 13.4% respectively. These growth patterns between 2004 and 2013 can be compared to the 2% increase in the number of jobs, 9.5% increase in population and 28% increase in per capita income of the state of New Mexico.
The construction and opening of the Rail Runner commuter rail coincided with the economic recession (between 2007 to around 2010). Highly dependent on government and office jobs, the Albuquerque MSA was hit hard and is still in the process of economic recovery. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage in the Albuquerque MSA was about 8% lower than the national average wage of $22.33 per hour in 2013. The Santa Fe MSA also sat below the national average hourly wage level by 11% (2013 data). The area’s economists believe that the reason behind this significant wage difference is that there are still fewer jobs than the number of applicants. Although the unemployment rates for the Albuquerque MSA and Santa Fe MSA were both below the national level during the economic recession, after 2013, both the Albuquerque MSA and Santa Fe MSA fell behind in economic growth.
Between 2004 and 2013 the unemployment rate in the Albuquerque MSA increased from 5.3% to 7.1%. During the same period, the Santa Fe MSA also had an increase in unemployment, from 4.5% to 5.9%. A study of the changes of employment in the two MSAs shows that the economic impacts of the recession hit both Metropolitan Area at around 2008. By the end of 2012, Albuquerque MSA had lost more than 27,500 jobs (a 5.5% reduction compared to 2008 employment) while Santa Fe lost more than 6,500 jobs (a 6.5% reduction compared to 2008 employment). Construction, Manufacturing and Retail Trade industries were hit the hardest with 32%, 22% and 7% loss of jobs between 2008 and 2013. Although other industries in the area have almost recovered all the jobs lost to economic recession, these three industries are still far behind the job growth race.
Between 2006 (when the first phase of the Rail Runner project service began and 2013, the combined population of the Albuquerque MSA and the Santa Fe MSA has increased by more than 9%. As of 2013, the Albuquerque MSA and Santa Fe MSA housed 1,031,247 people, accounting for half of the population of the state of New Mexico. During the same period (2006-2013), the combined population of the four counties of Bernalillo, Sandoval, Santa Fe and Valencia has grown by more than 8.5% and the population of the state of New Mexico has grown by more than 6.2%.
Prior to the opening of the Rail Runner commuter rail, the two major cities of New Mexico, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, were only connected by Interstate 25 (I-25). I-25 is a four-lane, north-south freeway running from Interstate 90 in Buffalo, Wyoming to the U.S. southern border with Mexico. Despite the heavy traffic congestion on I-25, adding new parallel roadways or widening the highway to decrease the traffic congestion was not a feasible option for the area; within the Albuquerque MSA and Santa Fe MSA, I-25 crosses five Native American pueblos.
In addition, the Native American pueblos near the Albuquerque MSA are major tourist destinations, attracting more traffic to the I-25 highway. The interstate also provides the only highway access to the New Mexico International Sunport, the only major airport in the state, which has about 4.6 million boardings a year. Increasing congestion on I-25 and projected future travel demands led the state to consider a transit service between the two metropolitan areas.
The plans for construction of the Rail Runner project were announced in September 2003 and the New Mexico DOT selected the Mid-Region Council of Government (MRCOG) as the “exclusive agent” responsible for construction and operation of the commuter rail. Around the same time, the New Mexico Regional Transit District Act (RTDA) was passed as a transportation improvement package with different objectives, such as providing safe and efficient transit access in the region—especially for transit-dependent groups such as seniors, youth, low-income, and mobility-impaired residents—and reducing traffic congestion and emissions caused by single-occupant vehicles.
The Rail Runner project was passed as part of the RTDA and construction on Phase I of the project started in November 2005. That same year, the MRCOG established the Mid-Region Transit District (MRTD) as the transit agency responsible for transit operations in Bernalillo, Sandoval, and Valencia counties. The first phase, which started service in 2006, connected Downtown Bernalillo in Sandoval County to Belen, in the densely-populated area of Valencia County. Phase II of the project was completed in 2008, finally connecting the Albuquerque MSA with the Santa Fe MSA.
The $400M cost (in 2008 dollars) of the 97-mile long Rail Runner (completed in two phases) included $75M paid by NMDOT to BNSF for purchasing half of the right-of-way of the tracks from Belen to the Colorado state line. These costs were paid through federal grants and local funds.
In 2008, the MRTD changed its name to the Rio Metro Regional Transit District (RMTDA). Later in 2009, the RMRTD signed a new contract with NMDOT to be the sole operator of the Rail Runner as well as other transit operations in the region.
4.1 Transportation Impacts
According to NMDOT’s 2015 transit report, the shift of motorists to the Rail Runner for commuting has reduced the traffic congestion on the region’s roadways by saving nearly 22 million vehicle miles of travel during morning and afternoon commute hours annually. This reduction in vehicle miles-traveled has led to a nearly one-million-gallon reduction in fossil fuel consumption.
Riding the Rail Runner is considered to be cost-effective for everyday users. A commuter who chooses to travel via Rail Runner instead of a private vehicle from downtown Albuquerque to downtown Santa Fe can save more than $900 per month. Also, savings in vehicle-miles-traveled results in more than $5 million savings in accident costs annually (2010 data analysis according to the National Transportation Statistics of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics).
The travel time and the frequency of service limit the attractiveness of using the Rail Runner. The condition of the tracks, half of which are shared with BNSF freight trains, limit the maximum speed of travel to around 80 miles per hour. It takes more than 2 hours to travel from Belen to Santa Fe with the Rail Runner compared to 1.5 hour if the trip is made by automobile. The 40 minute headways (weekdays) between trains can make the trip even longer for the passengers.
Walkability around the stations and the transit (mainly bus) services connected to the Rail Runner also impeded ridership. Many commuters prefer to (or must) use their private vehicle to get to/from the Rail Runner stations. However, the Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) bus system is nearing completion (as of 2017), which will create links between Rail Runner stations and major employment nodes along Central Avenue (U.S. Route 66) and support the Rail Runner service. The expansion of transit access in the area around the Rail Runner stations can help increase its ridership and provide better accessibility for transit-dependent riders.
4.2 Demographic, Economic & Land Use Impacts
Following the announcement of the Rail Runner project and its completion, the small towns and villages along the commuter rail line (such as Town of Bernalillo, Los Lunas Village, the City of Belen, and Bernalillo County in Albuquerque MSA) have started significant planning programs. In 2006, the MRCOG began leading and assisting local governments to plan and implement transit oriented developments (TODs) in areas within walking distance from the stations (normally within the half-mile radius around the stations). These plans included land use and re-zoning policies to speed up the development around the stations. As of 2017, some of the communities along the Rail Runner commuter line have adopted these TOD plans.
The Town of Bernalillo in Sandoval County adopted a TOD plan in 2007 that included plans for commercial and residential developments around the community's two rail stations: the downtown Bernalillo station and the Sandoval Co./US 550 station. Developments currently underway around the downtown Bernalillo station include the Alameda (walking/shopping) Plaza, Molino Cultural Complex, and Acequia Community Garden. The town plans to transform the parking spaces and vacant properties near the Sandoval Co./US 550 station into public vineyards and orchard gardens to support the area’s agriculture. These projects are also in the planning phase, but no specific information is available about the developed area and potential opening dates.
In Belen, plans were adopted (in 2009) to develop vacant parcels of land in the area within walking distance of the Rail Runner station. The plans included new compact residential neighborhoods east, north and south of Reinken Avenue (an east-west Avenue located south of the station), bringing more business to the small retailers located along this route. As of 2017, no major residential projects have begun in the vacant lots near the station. However, a few new retail and service businesses have opened near the station.
In late 2008, the MRCOG and the local government in Bernalillo County began planning efforts for the development of the Bernalillo Co./Sunport station area. The development plans included a combination of residential and retail, as well as some light industrial and office spaces.
The Los Lunas Rail Runner Express Station Area plan of 2008 promoted the area around the Rail Runner station as a community center offering new residential, retail, and public spaces, and community amenities such as parks and bike paths. The plans for The Shops at Los Lunas, covering more than 20,000 square feet of retail space, are an example of such developments. As of 2017, some clothing retailers have already signed long-term leases for this shopping center and when it opens, more than 30 jobs will be created in the area. Also, some vacant or underutilized properties near the station were included in an adopted re-zoning plan that allowed for higher-density residential uses. No specific progress has been reported in this case.
The Kewa station has seen some developments lately around the Rail Runner station. In early 2016, the Santo Domingo Tribal Housing Authority (SDTHA) announced the Domingo housing project, located within walking distance of the Rail Runner station. This project was completed in summer 2017 and offers 41 one- and two-story housing units with a 3,000 square-foot community center, including a multi-purpose space and a daycare center.
In 2008, residential lofts (45 units) were constructed within walking distance of the anticipated South Capitol Rail Runner station in Santa Fe. In addition, a 500,000 square-foot project, including mixed-use (office/retail/residential) spaces, a 2,000-seat cinema, and a multi-modal hub have been announced for the Santa Fe Depot station area.
Based on the analysis of plans for development around the Rail Runner stations and information obtained from interviews with local authorities, we estimate that 120 jobs have been created as a direct result of the New Mexico Rail Runner project so far (as of 2017). If the TOD projects that are currently in the planning/funding process come to fruition, more than 530 additional jobs will be created in the area around the stations.
The economic developments that occurred as a result of the Rail Runner project can be attributed to many factors such as the supporting TOD plans and accompanying zoning offered by local governments along the commuter rail line. These supporting land use policies were adopted around the time that the first phase of the project was completed (2006). Although the area adjacent to the stations has seen some changes, many major developments have not yet materialized. The slow pace of development is in part the result of the Great Recession of 2008 and its lingering effects on the region.
According to interviews, the basic infrastructure needed for TODs has been provided to promote walkable communities in the areas within a half mile from the stations. Areas farther from the stations lack a transit option to connect with the commuter rail stations. Currently, the RMRTD is working towards an integrated public transit system that will enable the residents of towns and villages possessing a Rail Runner station to get to their desired destination via public transportation.
Organization, Name, Affiliation
Rio Metro Regional Transit District, Tony Sylvester, Project Manager
New Mexico Council of Government, Kendra Montanari, Socio-Economic Program Manager
Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, Paul Silverman, Vice Chair
Case Study Developed by University of Maryland