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NMSU graduate student to promote public transportation with fellowship money

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - Daniel Estrada wants to keep people on the move! And, he hopes funding from a fellowship program will help him do just that.

Daniel Estrada has received funding from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The graduate student, working toward a master's degree in applied geography, was recently awarded $5,000 from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program to help him research commuter railways and how they can affect driving patterns, especially along Interstate 10, between El Paso, Texas, and Las Cruces.

Estrada said he hoped to bring to light the many positive benefits of utilizing public transportation, from ease of travel to better air quality.

"I feel that commuter rail lines would ultimately serve us in a greater capacity, in our state and in the metro area, rather than have commuters deal with road congestion," said Estrada.

The graduate student is modeling his research after the New Mexico Rail Runner Express that runs between Belen and Santa Fe.

In his study, Estrada is looking at four different scenarios: the original configuration of four traveling lanes along I-10, plus a railway; the original configuration without a railway; the new configuration of six lanes along with the railway; and the six-lane road without the railway.

An average of 300,000 people are employed in El Paso, Estrada said. Of that number, 79 percent travel to work. However, only 1.8 percent of those who travel to work use some form of public transportation.

Using the transit system is not being promoted in the Southwest as much as it is in other places, such as Chicago, Ill., and Canada.

During a recent trip to Vancouver, Canada, which has an extensive public transportation system, Estrada said he was able to get to each of his destinations around the city through public transit.

"That is our answer," he said. "We do not typically invest in transit, so our transit systems end up being less than what they should be."

The challenge for him, Estrada said, is that people in the area are so used to commuting in their own vehicles it may be hard to convince people to look to public transportation to get where they need to go.

Estrada said there is a unique situation in the Southwest because the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway runs between Las Cruces and El Paso, and there are still lines that go directly to the airport. Through his research, Estrada wants to show that because of the existing lines, there would be minimal lying down of new tracks.

Estrada said he hopes to address not only congestion along the interstate, but improving air quality as well by not having as many motor vehicles on the road. Moving people off the road will also free up space for freights trucks to move shipments across the country.

As part of his study, Estrada said he wants to also address using shuttles and streetcars within cities to help people get to their specific destinations once they arrive in the city.

"I was surprised and excited to learn I was accepted into the fellowship program," Estrada said. "It's going to be a lot of work. I have to take a step back and do more of a scientific study of commuter railways, rather than try to be an advocate."

Ultimately, Estrada wants to work with the Department of Transportation to develop the railway systems in the West.