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Fiesta attempts to tackle heavy traffic problems

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This aerial photo taken from the KOAT-TV helicopter, shows the intersection of Alameda and Interstate 25, early Saturday, as slow moving vehicles headed toward Balloon Fiesta Park for the opening mass ascension. (Photo courtesy of KOAT-TV)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A mesmerized Laura Song, a native of China who now lives in Colorado Springs, had trouble putting into words the spectacle of seeing her first mass ascension during Saturday’s opening of the 47th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

But her criticism of the traffic congestion in and out of Balloon Fiesta Park was direct and concise:

“You guys have had this for how many years? You should have figured it out by now.”

That was the sentiment of many people who got caught in traffic or were waiting at park-and-ride locales with no buses in sight when the mass ascension began. Wait times, congestion and delays were even worse this year than in years past, they said.

In fact, that was the case, said Balloon Fiesta Executive Director Paul Smith.

Although it’s not yet known how many people in total attended the opening session, a record 21,000 park-and-ride tickets were sold. The previous record was 17,500, set a few years ago.

The problem, said Dennis Christiansen, the fiesta’s coordinator of traffic and park-and-ride, was “sheer volume.”

Although traffic delays and wait-time problems have occurred on the closing weekend and during midweek sessions, “the first Saturday is always the craziest,” he said, and this year was made worse when weather forecasters predicted that Saturday flying conditions would be fine, but worsening weather might prevent Sunday and Monday launches.

Fiesta officials are taking the criticism seriously and initiating steps to make the rest of the annual event run smoother, they said.

Among the adjustments being made is limiting the number of park-and-ride tickets sold, said Smith, who acknowledged fiesta officials have not determined what that number might be.

In the interest of comfort, the number of portable toilets will be increased at park-and-ride lots, and lot managers will have better access to loudspeakers “to relay information, good or bad,” about delays and wait times, Christiansen said.

Limiting the number of park-and-ride tickets sold, however, does not preclude people from driving their cars to Balloon Fiesta Park, Smith said. “So it may solve one problem over here, but moves it to a different location. That’s why we have not done it in the past.”

Two intersections were particularly problematic Saturday – one at Second and Alameda, where the traffic signal continued to flash red until 10:30 a.m., causing confused motorists to stop and go; and one at Alameda and Jefferson, where because of the timing of the signal lights, park-and-ride buses often had to wait through three cycles before they could go, decreasing the number of trips they could make between the pickup lots and the fiesta grounds, Christiansen said.

Additional Albuquerque police officers will be on hand for the rest of the fiesta to direct traffic at key intersections along heavily traveled entrance and exit routes, Smith said, and there will be a concerted effort to make sure that “traffic signals are set properly.”

And park-and-ride buses will also be positioned more effectively at the fiesta turnaround area, Christiansen said, “in the hope of getting more buses out quicker, which will in turn get them back quicker so we can squeeze another run in.”

However, some conditions are out of their control, such as four non-bus-related vehicle accidents Saturday – two on the West Side and two in Northeast Albuquerque – which no doubt diverted additional traffic into already heavily traveled fiesta routes, said Smith.

Further, “we have a limited number of access points to and from the park,” he said. “We are kind of landlocked here. We have a reservation (Sandia) to the north, a neighborhood to the west, and AMAFCA (flood control) channels on two sides.”

How much the adjustments will affect traffic remains to be seen, but it’s too late for Susan Morales, who traveled in a caravan to Albuquerque from Los Alamos with family members from California, Texas and Alabama – 14 people in three vehicles, she told the Journal.

They purchased park-and-ride/fiesta admission tickets online in August, paying $15 for each of 11 adult tickets and $12 each for three seniors.

The group was at the Coronado mall park-and-ride site before 5 a.m. Saturday, where “there were already hundreds of people waiting, and we didn’t see more than four buses coming and going,” Morales said. “About 7:30 a.m., people wearing parking attendant vests announced there would be no more buses, even though there were still hundreds of people waiting in line at the time.”

Her group got back into its vehicles, determined to drive directly to Balloon Fiesta Park, but it took nearly an hour to get to Paseo del Norte and I-25.

The group gave up and headed back to Los Alamos.

“We believe they didn’t have enough buses running and they oversold tickets, and I’m not talking about a handful of people who got left behind; I’m talking about hundreds of people – and that’s just that one park-and-ride site,” Morales said.

There were plenty of buses, Christiansen said.

The fiesta rented 225 buses for opening and closing weekend, and about 200 buses for Thursday and Friday (park-and-ride does not operate Monday through Wednesday). Each bus accommodates 40 people.

The problem was traffic prevented them from making more than one or two trips in time to get riders to Balloon Fiesta Park before the mass ascension began.

“We’re not traffic people; we’re balloonists,” said Christiansen, adding that the traffic plan was put together in conjunction with professionals at the New Mexico Department of Transportation, the Albuquerque Police Department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office.

“We’re pretty good at putting 10 pounds of stuff in a 5-pound bag,” Smith said. “The trouble is, and Saturday was a prime example, when you have 12 pounds of stuff and try to put it in that 5-pound bag. It just doesn’t work.”


Balloon Fiesta Today

Kids’ Day

A.M.

6:00: Dawn Patrol

6:30: Laser Light Show

7:00: Special Shape Rodeo

8:00: Competition Flying Begins

8:30-11:30: AIBF Chainsaw Carving Invitational

P.M.

1:30-5:00: AIBF Chainsaw Carving Invitational

6:00: Special Shape Glowdeo

7:45: Laser Light Show

8:00: AfterGlow Fireworks Show

Friday

A.M.

6:00: Dawn Patrol

6:30: Laser Light Show

7:00: Special Shape Rodeo

8:00: Competition Flying Begins

8:30-11:30: AIBF Chainsaw Carving Invitational

P.M.

1:30-5:00: AIBF Chainsaw Carving Invitational

6:00: Special Shape Glowdeo

7:45: Laser Light Show

8:00: AfterGlow Fireworks Show

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