DALLAS — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he now supports creation of a regional transit authority to finance operations of an Albuquerque-area commuter rail system after strongly opposing the proposal in September 2007.

The proposed district, which would encompass four counties, would be able to collect a voter-approved sales tax to support operations of the Rail Runner Express commuter system.

Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught had proposed the creation of a regional transit district under provisions of a law approved by the Legislature in 2004 in remarks to the Legislative Finance Committee. Under the proposal, voters in Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Sandoval, and Valencia counties would be asked to approve a 0.125% sales tax to generate up to $25 million to pay the operational costs of the commuter rail system.

At that time, Richardson took time off his now-defunct campaign for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States to quash the idea of transit sales tax.

“Gov. Richardson is not interested in a tax increase to pay for the operation of the Rail Runner,” said spokesman Gilbert Gallegos on Sept. 27. “The Rail Runner expansion will move forward as planned, and the governor expects to consider different options, other than a tax increase, to pay for its operations in the future.”

Gallegos later said the transit tax proposal “was off the table forever.”

However, Richardson now says he believes that a regional transit district is the best method for ensuring operational expenses can be met.

The governor said he changed his mind after discussing financial options with Lieut. Gov. Diane Denish, members of the New Mexico Transportation Commission, and officials with the Mid-Region Council of Governments, which oversees the operations of the rail system being built by the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

“The commission made a compelling argument that there is strong public support for these districts to help pay for operations and maintenance of the Rail Runner, as well as other public transportation options to support it,” Richardson said in a statement. “The commission thoroughly reviewed funding options during its deliberations.”

All six members of the Transportation Commission signed the letter to Richardson, dated Jan. 16, urging his support for the rail district.

“We believe the formation of a Regional Transit District would serve the interests of the traveling public and the citizens of New Mexico by addressing operational and maintenance needs of the Rail Runner,” the letter said.

“Additionally, such a district also meets the important need of including local communities and governments to ensure the success of this very important public project.”

Denish said the commissioners were “on the right track” in looking to regional efforts to meet the state’s transportation needs.

“We’ve recently seen start-up regional transit districts in other parts of the state, and they are helping to relieve congestion and allow people to travel more freely,” she said. “The Rail Runner is a premier transit system that deserves the support of the citizens most likely to take advantage of it.”

Denish said voters in the four counties should be able to decide whether a sales tax is the best way to support Rail Runner operations.

“I support the opportunity for people in their own communities to decide the need and if they want to use the sales tax to fund transportation,” she said.

The state is financing the 100-mile rail system with $400 million in bond proceeds, premiums, and earned interest, including $325 million in GRIP I bond proceeds, $17 million of severance tax bonds approved by the 2007 Legislature in the GRIP II program, $46.5 million in GRIP bond premiums, and $11.5 million in investment earnings from GRIP bond proceeds.

It takes about $9.5 million a year to operate the current 50-mile segment between Belen, south of Albuquerque, to Bernalillo, north of the city. Operational costs expected to rise to more than $20 million a year when service is extended another 50 miles to Santa Fe in December.

The state receives approximately $8 million a year in federal funds to cover most of the rail line’s operational costs under a traffic congestion-air pollution mitigation effort, but the funding will expire in 2009.

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