What led to this debacle, which just weeks ago former Mayor Richard Berry described as “one of the best designed transit projects in America”?
In our role as attorneys in the litigation unsuccessfully challenging the project, we reviewed thousands of documents to understand how carefully planners examined the appropriate features and necessity of a new rapid transit system. We concluded that each responsible level of government neglected or abdicated its obligation to independently and diligently carry out this review. Worse, they ignored public outpouring of critical information revealing grave conceptual mistakes.
Mayor Berry, intent on a signature project, adopted an at-all-cost approach throwing caution to the winds. That Berry furtively resorted to rented chargers to power his inaugural ART ride is a metaphor for the artifice behind the project itself. The Federal Transit Administration acted as Berry’s enabler rather than an oversight agency. Until it was too late, city councilors passively accepted ART as “the mayor’s project.” Even the State Historic Preservation Office, initially refusing to grant its approval, eventually capitulated.
These failures occurred not because the public was apathetic or idle. They happened despite repeated warnings, which the city and FTA disregarded.
Nearly a year before ART’s groundbreaking, respected architects Paul Lusk and Tony Anella warned city officials that Central Avenue’s right-of-way was too narrow to accommodate the center-running design, would create congestion, and would imperil the public. They offered detailed critiques and even blueprints for an alternate design, which the city dismissed.
Citizens inundated FTA with over 1,600 opposition letters and media reports of public outcry. Nevertheless, FTA accepted the city’s written assurance that ART was not “likely to generate intense public discussion, concern or controversy.” This assurance allowed FTA to exempt ART from a comprehensive assessment of its impacts on our community.
The city’s own 2015 traffic study projected that ART would eventually clog some intersections so severely that they could be cleared only by dismantling its bus-only lanes, undoing ART’s basic design. The FTA and city paid no heed.
Moreover, the last administration’s ineptitude and deceptiveness significantly contributed to our predicament.
Despite holding public meetings in 2014 under pretext of receiving design feedback, including whether ART should operate on dedicated center lanes or curbside, the city never genuinely considered anything other than the center-running configuration. In fact, three years earlier the city hired InfraConsult to assess a center-running design and no others.
The city’s narrow focus on center-running design was apparently inspired by its erroneous belief early-on that FTA funding required it. In 2014 a city planner e-mailed an apology to then-Transit Director Bruce Rizzieri, admitting error on this “crucial point.” The city would not reverse course, and the center-running design became ART’s Achilles heel.
The city touted the inevitability of FTA funding and began construction ahead of schedule without it and without the contingency plan city councilors unsuccessfully directed Berry to prepare.
We hope Berry’s confidence in FTA funding is justified and given FTA’s complicity in our plight, it should fund ART quickly. We regret we failed to persuade the courts that the city and FTA violated federal law. Had we prevailed, FTA would have been required to meaningfully assess ART’s impacts on businesses, traffic, historic neighborhoods and our urban environment. Such an analysis likely would have resulted in a redesign that better reflects our city’s transit needs. Instead, Albuquerque’s most storied and historic avenue is barren and blighted with vacant ART stations standing as monuments to governmental conceit overruling the people affected and common sense.