The Lobo whistle stop… did taxpayers get railroaded?

Larry Barker

It’s an $800,000 Rail Runner platform just south of downtown Albuquerque, but you can’t catch the train there. The 430-foot railroad platform isn’t on any schedule, and the last time the Rail Runner stopped there was ten years ago. In fact, just months after building the facility public officials simply abandoned it.

“I think this project was a train wreck,” says Albuquerque State Senator Mark Moores. “The way we handle business in New Mexico state government would bankrupt us. We cannot do this in the private sector, and the government and the taxpayer should not tolerate wasting money this way.”

The rail stop is called the Lobo Special Events Platform and is a joint venture between the Rail Runner, the University of New Mexico and the City of Albuquerque. 

“The purpose of the platform was to provide Rail Runner service for special events that service the south campus of UNM, Lobo football games, basketball games or other events that would happen in that area,” says Dewey Cave, Executive Director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments.

The thought was if you lived in Santa Fe or Belen and wanted to go to a Lobo game, avoid the hassle of parking, ride the train, get off at the Lobo station and then a bus would take you to the UNM event.

The Lobo platform was the brainchild of Gov. Bill Richardson.

“The governor was really a very big supporter of Lobo athletics at the time and was very interested in seeing if there was an opportunity to connect the Rail Runner to … the football stadium, The Pit, maybe Isotopes Park,” says Lawrence Rael, who headed up the Rail Runner in 2008.

Under the theory ‘build it, and they will come,’ Gov. Richardson doled out $460,000 to construct the Lobo platform. Lawrence Rael says there were no feasibility studies relating to ridership for a Lobo platform.

UNM’s President at the time, Dr. David Schmidly, also liked the idea and authorized the University to kick in an additional $350,000 for the project. “We’re not aware of any type of planning or feasibility studies (at UNM) that were done prior to the project’s initiation,” says UNM Deputy Chief of Staff Cinnamon Blair. 

Following a year-long construction, the Lobo platform was completed in September 2009. However, public officials would soon figure out their $800,000 investment was a bust.

The Lobo station was inaugurated in September 2009 for the Tulsa-UNM football game. Sixty passengers went to the game on the Rail Runner. 

In October ’09, 91 fans got off at the UNM platform for the Lobo-UNLV game. In November of that year, the Rail Runner hosted 49 passengers for the UNM-BYU game.

And in December, UNM ordered up a special train for the New Mexico Bowl to see Fresno State battle Wyoming. Total ridership for the special train was just 27 fans.

The Rail Runner’s Dewey Cave says 27 passengers “doesn’t even come close” to justifying a special train. He says the Rail Runner would need “300 to 400 passengers at least” just to break even.

That 2009 New Mexico Bowl would spell the end of the Lobo Special Events Platform. Due to low ridership and a lack of interest, the platform was padlocked, and the $800,000 project was written off as an unfortunate political blunder.

“We take money from taxpayers, and then politicians get a great idea in their head, and they just spend this money on what they think is a great idea,” says State Senator Mark Moores. “When you’re dealing with other people’s money it’s easy just to spend it without actually planning.”

Does former Rail Runner Exec Lawrence Rael feel he owes taxpayers any apologies? “No, I feel like we did what the elected officials, i.e. the governor and the legislature and even the university, asked us to do, which was to build them a platform to serve the public,” Rael says.

Lawrence Rael places part of the blame for the Lobo platform’s demise on UNM. “They have the sports facilities. They have all the events there. It was their platform. They paid for it. That’s where I think the ball was dropped,” Rael says.

“I can’t say it was a failure,” the Rail Runner’s Dewy Cave says. “I think in some people’s corner it was a failure. In other people’s corner, it was an opportunity, and it just didn’t work out.”

“We can look back on this project and clearly see that there was not enough due diligence applied on the front end,” UNM’s Cinnamon Blair says. “There should have been more studies on ridership and survey work done to see if people indeed would have used the bus service and the Rail Runner,” Blair said.

Cinnamon Blair says UNM has no plans to reopen the Lobo platform. “We have not had any further discussions on the use of that platform,” Blair says.

READ: Lobo Special Events Platform News Release

WATCH: Lobo Special Events Platform extra video

 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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