Why light rail makes sense
Isn't the RailRunner subsidized?
First, let's dispel the myth that public services must make a profit or even break even in order to be "worth it." This belief is an oversimplification of how government works and why it exists. Most of the services that government provides operate at a loss. Well, to be more precise, most government services don't actually operate at a loss, but they do require tax revenue to operate. Take, for example, the fire department. They don't come close to breaking even. Ok, some may say, but that's comparing apples to oranges; we're talking about transportation here. Fine, let's talk transportation. The next time you get on I-25 or any other state or national highway, ask yourself this question: do highways turn a profit, break even, or lose money? Or, more precisely, do roads require tax revenue to operate?
Other modes of tranportation also subsidized
The answer, as we all know, is that highways "lose money" and are massively subsidized by the government. Also operating at a loss and being subsidized are the law enforcement agencies (e.g. highway patrols) which police our highways, the emergency/ambulance vehicles and first responders who arrive on the scene of accidents that occur on our highways, the bridges and overpasses which must be maintained, and even the fuel in the gas tanks of the vehicles. That's right, even the gas in our cars is subsidized: oil and gas companies receive enormous tax "incentives," grants, and other subsidies from both federal and local governments. In addition, the U.S. military is sent around the world to intervene when our oil interests are threatened (and that costs tax payers' money), and so forth. It's time we, the tax payers, realize that there really is no such thing as a "free lunch."
So, the question is not whether New Mexico's light rail system might operate at a loss; it probably will. The question is whether it will provide significant benefits for the money invested. And, indeed, it will. Specifically, it will reduce congestion on our highways, thereby reducing the costs of maintaining and/or expanding these roads, lessening the burden (both financial and human) of patrolling the roads for law enforcement and first responders, and reducing the greenhouse gases and other pollutants emitted into the air by vehicles on these roads. And light rail will reduce oil and gas usage which, as even President Bush noted in one of his State of the Union addresses, is a national security issue. These benefits will help us, the tax paying citizens, whether we choose to ride the rail or not.
Benefits even if you don't ride
Even if a person elects to continue exclusively using an automobile, never setting foot on the light rail, other New Mexicans will choose to ride the rail; and each person riding the rail is one less car causing the rest of us headaches and traffic jams on our daily commutes. Each person on the rail is one less car emitting exhaust that other drivers and their passengers, including children, have to breathe at stop lights. Each person riding the rail is one less car whose occupants first responders might need to transport to the hospital after a crash. Each person riding the rail is one less car causing wear and tear on the highways, bridges, and overpasses. Each person riding the rail means one less car in the parking lot when searching for that elusive place to park at the mall. If you're one of the folks who decides not to ride the rail, yes, you'll be paying taxes for something that you don't use, but the light rail users will too, as they'll be paying taxes for roads they aren't using. Turnabout is fair play. Light rail for New Mexico is an idea whose time has come.
Why is the right wing so scared of a little train?
This issue is much, much bigger than the little train that could. The train's budget is really peanuts compared to other state expenditures, so there really isn't a huge financial windfall to be had by slashing its budget. However, there is a huge political windfall, which is much more important than a mere line item in the budget. The political windfall is that the right wing has a philosophical beef with the train or, in more general terms, with any service that the government provides.
The right wing's beef is that the RailRunner might show folks that government can do something useful for the citizens and that every good thing in the world need not come from "for profit" private corporations, with fat-cat CEO's who lounge on big yachts (when they aren't staying in one of their twelve waterfront mansions). If the RailRunner succeeds, it eats away at the fundamental underpinnings of right-wing ideology by showing the citizens that, yes, government can do things; yes, government can provide services; no, private companies do not solve every problem that we have.
The right wing has an additional beef with the RailRunner: it might help the environment and reduce our use of oil and gas. But that - god forbid - would not benefit the big oil companies who funnel huge amounts of money into the Republican coffers during each election cycle. So, by golly, they're gonna do everything they can to cut the little train that could. It's already started. Our local right wing talk radio hosts have been harping about the RailRunner for years now. Then came the intellectual propaganda from the corporate front groups a.k.a. "think tanks" citing the RailRunner as "wasteful". Finally comes our new Republican governor, Susanna Martinez, who has already publicly stated that she's "looking into" the train's budget.
A three pronged strategy to kill the train
Right now the train has lots of riders. I should know, I ride it myself. This is a problem for Governor Martinez. She can't cut the budget for the train altogether, in one fell swoop, when so many folks like it. That would be politically stupid, and Martinez is not stupid. Instead, she will start with a concerted effort to focus attention on the fact that the train does not fund itself, but requires "subsidies" (i.e. tax revenue) to operate - this effort actually started prior to Martinez taking office, so it's well underway. That's prong one.
Prong two of the strategy is to use the groundwork laid in prong one as a justification for raising ticket prices for the train. Prices will probably be raised in phases, and as each price hike kicks in, ridership will drop. After ridership is sufficiently weakened, then prong three kicks in: Martinez will then be able to "justify" killing the train. The right wing spin doctors will, of course, make a bunch of noise about how government can't do anything right and how public services are so terribly inefficient. It will make them all feel good because the big "threat" to their ideology is gone. And the oil and gas execs will write out nice fat checks for Martinez's reelection in the next campaign cycle. Yep, you heard it here first. You know, somebody should be ridden out of town on a rail.