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Duke City Goes For The Green

By Dan McKay
Journal Staff Writer
    Albuquerque loves its roads.
    The mayor and City Council, over the past decade, have backed the construction of Paseo del Norte through the petroglyph area, Montaño Road through the bosque and numerous other projects— often over environmental objections.
    The new asphalt makes it all the more surprising, then, that Albuquerque is working on a new reputation— as one of America's most green-friendly cities.
    It has embraced the Kyoto targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and taken a lead in getting others to do so as well. Last summer, the city filed a Supreme Court brief supporting a global-warming lawsuit against the Bush administration.
    As for local action, Mayor Martin Chávez has pledged to buy only alternative-fuel vehicles for the city fleet. The City Council sets aside 3 percent of its capital budget for energy-efficient projects.
    And more work is on the way, with possible revisions to the building code to promote green-friendly homes and businesses.
    Some of it is an odd twist, especially for a mayor with a reputation for embracing growth and getting roads built.
    "I am unabashedly pro-business," Chávez, a Democrat, said recently. "That's where the jobs come from. But I've never believed creating wealth and environmental protection are at odds with each other."
   
Taking on issues
    Since 2001, when five new city councilors and Chávez took office, Albuquerque's government has tackled a host of environmental issues.
    Councilor Michael Cadigan, who won election in 2001, was a lead author of the "Planned Growth Strategy," a set of guidelines and regulations intended to help limit urban sprawl.
    Martin Heinrich, who finished a stint as City Council president this month, took office in 2003 and won support for making new government buildings energy-efficient, among other green legislation.
    Isaac Benton, an architect and member of the U.S. Green Building Council, joined the City Council in 2005 and successfully pushed for a 3 percent set-aside for energy projects, expanding an earlier ordinance.
    "I certainly think that, right now, there is more interest and effort going into it than there ever has been in Albuquerque," Heinrich said. "We're making some good progress. What we have to make sure we do is, once we make good policy, we have to make sure the bureaucracy actually implements that policy."
    The mayor, councilors and others say there is more to be done: some of it fairly easy, some of it expensive and difficult.
    Cadigan, who represents the northern half of the West Side, wants to see the municipal bus system improved, especially between homes on the West Mesa and job centers east of the Rio Grande.
    "Automobile travel is, I think, the greatest threat to the environment that there is," he said. "I'd like to see us kick it up a notch with the bus system."
    Another area of irritation for Cadigan are bigger-than-necessary SUVs or trucks driven by city employees.
    "I still see a lot of new vehicles being bought by the city that are giant four-wheel drive Expeditions and Excursions, and I continue to wonder if the job they're doing could be done by a small, more fuel-efficient vehicle," he said.
    The city instructs workers to drive the smallest vehicles possible for the job, and fleet managers review vehicle purchases, according to the Mayor's Office.
    Chávez wants more of the city government's energy use to come from wind or solar power. About 15 percent now comes from wind.
    "We have rooftops just sitting there absorbing or repelling solar power but not using it," Chávez said.
    The Mayor's Office is looking at ways to adjust lending laws and other regulations to promote or even require more energy-efficient appliances in new construction. The Solid Waste Management Department taps methane gas to power a groundwater cleanup system at one landfill and is looking into doing similar work at other landfills.
    Chávez and Heinrich have also talked about building a streetcar system along much of Central Avenue, with a line running south to the airport. But that idea is on hold for now while transit needs are evaluated.
    "Converting to clean mass transit is an essential part of the strategy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions," Chávez said. "You can't get where you need to go without addressing automobiles."
    City bus ridership has climbed in recent years, thanks to the popularity of the Rapid Ride express bus service and escalating gas prices. The Transit Department announced last month that October ridership was up 13 percent over 2005 and 52 percent higher than two years ago.
   
Winning praise
    The greening of Albuquerque gets good marks from outside observers, though just how good is up for debate.
    Eva Thaddeus, volunteer coordinator for the Sierra Club, said Albuquerque has taken some of the steps the Sierra Club is advocating as part of its "Cool Cities" campaign, which seeks to fight global warming one city at a time.
    The Kyoto targets embraced by Albuquerque call for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels.
    "Albuquerque has already done a lot of those first steps," such as signing Kyoto, Thaddeus said. "We're on the path. What it really means to be a green city in the long run is a city that's moving toward a sustainable way of life. Every city in our country has a long way to go at this point."
    Southwestern cities are not generally thought of as green communities, she said. Albuquerque, in particular, needs to cut the amount of miles people drive in their cars, Thaddeus said. It also needs a plan for how it will take big steps to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, she said.
    Armando Cobo, an architect who specializes in green residential buildings, said he is disappointed Albuquerque hasn't moved more quickly to carry out energy recommendations from a city task force. Among the recommendations was creating a "fast track" process for permitting green buildings.
    Communities in Washington, Colorado and Oregon are considered leaders in green building, Cobo said. Still, he said, Albuquerque is more advanced than most of the country.
    "Albuquerque is right there," he said. "Believe it or not, we are one of the cities that is leading this."
    The mayor is making a big push to promote Albuquerque as a green city— including establishing the Web site albuquerquegreen.com and distributing a fancy brochure, "Q," touting the city's environmental policies.
    Benton said Albuquerque is doing a "pretty good" job.
    "We're not quite up there with a place like Portland," Ore., he said, "but we're making the right kind of effort."