Sunday, August 22, 2010

Transportation Wrap: GRIP, passengers and intermodal

In The New Mexican today, Kate Nash has a nice summary of the administration’s GRIP 1 and 2 highway building programs. She mentions the basics and misses an item or two, perhaps because of not being germane to story building things.

The Rail Runner commuter train service between Belen and Santa Fe gets credit for being the most expensive GRIP 1 project at $425 and get further credit for coming at 42% over the original $300 million estimate. While Nash does note Rail Runner 14% one-way ridership drop for the second quarter of 2010, over the 2009 quarter, she doesn’t mention Rail Runner’s operating deficit, $20 million annually is what I remember.

The financing mode—borrowing the money—gets full credit as flakey as well as do the allegations of misbehavior in putting together the financing deals. Gov. Gary Johnson gets appropriate credit for starting the borrowing.

High speed passenger rail seems the Obama administration’s next big thing for railroad. High speed means 100-mph and up 150mph. Last year the administration threw $8 billion at the idea. In response state grant requests totaled $102 billion, reported the Wall Street Journal this weekend (in the August 21-22 edition. This year Congress added $2.3 billion and a 20% state match requirement. State interest withered. Most states, it seems, don’t have the $300 (or more) match money lying around.

The delay of high speed passenger rail may be good, one can easily conclude from the three-page story in the July 24 edition of The Economist. (Registration is required for access. See “America’s system of rail freight is the world’s best,” the article says. Today’s freight trains run about 50 mph with passenger trains limited to no more than 80 mph in part because of track quality.

High speed passenger trains probably would require “expensive train control technology,” not needed now, to keep the fast trains from overrunning the freight. The added passengers would eat track capacity, hurt freight and, in particular, hurt the intermodal rail-container-truck systems that works well.

Intermodal, developing ever so slowly in southern New Mexico, got a bit of a boost with the August 13 announcement of $1.23 million grant from the feds to pay for restarting a suspended feasibility study of expanding commercial rail services along the border with Mexico. Central to all this is the plan by Union Pacific Corp. to build a $150 million intermodal facility near Santa Teresa. I don’t know the status of the UP project.

Not that intermodal development along the border hasn’t been studies about 82 times in the last 25 years, it’s good to hear something may be happening, however modest.

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