Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Councilors eye bill to get streetcars on track

City councilors on Monday will consider a bill that top city officials say could help transform the Duke City “beyond belief.”
If passed, the bill would help secure money for building and operating a $260 million to $270 million modern streetcar in Albuquerque by tweaking a transportation infrastructure tax voters approved in 1999.

“I think taking it (the tax) into the 21st century by funding a modern streetcar and continuing the existing funding levels on roads and trails and streets . . . is a pretty visionary and smart way to take transportation to the next step,” said Martin Heinrich, council president. “I think this is money well spent.”

The gross receipts tax of one-quarter of 1 percent – or 25 cents for every $100 – helps pay the city’s tab for road maintenance and upgrades, trails and extended bus-service hours.

The bill before the City Council would freeze the funding levels for each of those activities at a total of roughly $26.6 million a year.

It would make the tax permanent, though how its revenue gets divvied up could be altered in 2020, city Chief Operating Officer Ed Adams said. He noted the projects identified to be paid for by the tax in 1999 would still get done.

The bill also allows future growth in the tax revenue to be used for funding the construction of a modern streetcar, which is scheduled to begin next year, he said.

Beginning in 2010, $3 million a year would be set aside to pay for the streetcars’ operation, bringing the total frozen amount to $29.6 million.

He estimated the tax currently brings in about $34 million a year, compared to roughly $27 million in 1999. By 2020, he said it could bring in more than $50 million.

“The city has grown,” he said. “The economy is strong. That (tax) is generating more revenue. This is an opportunity to continue to make improvements in the transportation needs of our community without raising taxes.”

Adams said the first year of an altered tax-funding structure could provide $9 million for servicing the debt on bonds that would later be acquired to pay for the streetcar system’s construction.

“We have visited other cities that have done streetcar projects like this and what it has done for the cities is almost beyond belief,” Adams said. “It is a tremendous opportunity.”

He said the modern streetcar would cost about $28 million a mile to build.

Adams said the city originally intended to spend $120 million, but wants to invest up to $150 million for a longer route along Central Avenue from the Albuquerque Biological Park to Carlisle Boulevard.

Adams said the state would provide another $120 million to bring the route to Albuquerque International Sunport, bringing the total to as much as $270 million.

However, Gilbert Gallegos, spokesman for Gov. Bill Richardson, said no decisions have been made yet on funding.

“The governor does support it, but he has not made a commitment to a specific dollar amount at the next session,” Gallegos said.

Adams acknowledged that the city’s growth would create new needs for road maintenance, but he said the frozen funds from the transportation tax would still be sufficient.

That’s because the city has made progress in tackling a backlog of road repairs, so there are fewer problems from long ago to pay for. There are also other funds to pay for the same work, he said.

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