Sunday, September 10, 2006

BUS STORY # 5 (Rapid Ride)

$2.99 a gallon gas is what drove me to try the bus. Rapid Ride is why I keep riding.

Rapid Ride is the bus line that runs mostly down Central Avenue (the original Route 66) from one end of Albuquerque to the other. More importantly, it has a limited number of strategic stops and transfer points, and a “signal priority system” – meaning the driver can manipulate the traffic lights so he or she always has a green light at any given intersection (How cool is that?!). In addition to the minimal stops, no matter when you arrive at a Rapid Ride station, you won’t have to wait for longer than 11 minutes for the next bus. In practical terms, Rapid Ride enables me to get to work and back home without my having to give up sleep or seeing my wife during the work week. And since ecology has been a factor in my decision-making, I can also take comfort in the fact that these special “accordion” buses run on a hybrid diesel-electric engine.

This amazing innovation was the brainchild of our current mayor, Martin Chavez, and a handful of administrative suits. For reasons I cannot fathom, this provincial mayor of a backwater berg came to the conclusion that efficient and useful public transportation needed to be part of Albuquerque’s growth plan. Like John the Baptist, he was a voice crying out in the wilderness. Selling public transportation here in the west is, to borrow an analogy from my son-in-law, like trying to sell forest preservation to the folks in Maine. But, like John the Baptist, he got the attention of someone greater than himself – namely, the Federal Transit Administration. Lo and behold, the Feds agreed to pony up eight of the 10 million bucks needed to get this system off the ground.

Nobody really came out and said it, but a lot of us understood this was a boondoggle. But we also understood public transportation was the politically correct thing to do (not that we planned on using it ourselves). Plus, Marty’s a likeable, charming guy, and I think folks were willing to indulge this little folly of his since his political career had suffered a couple of painful setbacks: losing the governor’s race to a Republican, and then getting caught in a campaign donation/slush-fund/pay-to-play scandal. So with a minimum of grumbling, we let him play with two million of our easy-come easy-go dollars.

Rapid Ride was launched around Christmas of 2004. The response was tremendous – from the current ridership. But it didn’t lead to any significant conversions among us automobile drivers. So growth wasn’t turning out to be what Marty and the public transportation lobby were hoping for. Then came the gasoline price hikes.

I began riding in May. So, apparently, did a lot of other folks. Jay Faught, the Acting Marketing Manager for ABQ Ride, reports partial data suggests May's ridership was up some 22% over April's. This May’s Rapid Ride passenger numbers increased by 41.5% from May ’05.

Meanwhile, I’ve read the Rapid Ride is a first step toward an intra-Albuquerque light rail system. And our governor (running for President) has launched a rail initiative of his own: a bullet train to run on bio-diesel between Albuquerque and Santa Fe (with commuter stops at Isleta Pueblo and Los Lunas to the south, Bernalillo to the north) to alleviate the truly congested commuter traffic on I-25. It kicked off in April.

Here’s the story: I have a mayor who was farsighted enough to anticipate my needs for May of 2006 and was committed enough to create the infrastructure to meet those needs when they came barging into my life. I’ve been thinking I oughta spring for a thank-you bus pass for him one of these days.


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