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City Council approves 20 mph speed limit for Downtown

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Drivers on Central Avenue will have to slow down to 20 mph. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Get ready for a Downtown slowdown.

The Albuquerque City Council has approved designating the heart of the city a “safe zone” where speed limits cannot exceed 20 mph.

The new resolution, passed 7-1 Monday night, would affect an area bounded by Coal and Lomas, 8th Street and the railroad tracks. However, Lomas itself would not be subject to the lower speed limit.

Councilor Isaac Benton, who sponsored the proposal, called it an outgrowth of a 2014 Downtown walkability study. Author Jeff Speck had in his report actually recommended a 25 mph for the area but called it a “compromise,” writing that “a growing number of cities have instituted ‘20 is Plenty’ ordinances in their downtowns, and a few have even settled on 18 mph as the target speed.”

Benton, who represents Downtown, said 20 makes sense in the city’s core, noting its grid-like design and closely spaced intersections.

“It’s very important for a Downtown center — where there is tourism and where we are trying to re-establish vitality — to be walkable,” Benton said prior to the vote. “It’s good for business, it’s good for health, it’s good for everybody.”

Council President Klarissa Peña quipped: “Sounds like the cruisers had it right: we just want everyone cruising Downtown.”

Don Harris cast the lone vote against the proposal, saying in an interview afterward it could have unintended consequences.

“I think it cuts against having Downtown be a commercial destination,” he said. “A lot of people don’t like to go Downtown because it’s a hassle, and I think this could make it more of a hassle.”

But Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement he supports the idea as it “aligns” with the Downtown Public Safety District initiative.

With Keller’s approval, the new speed limit likely will take affect in mid- to late April.

Lawrence Rael, Keller’s chief operations officer, said the roadway system should be shared.

“We ought to have a reasonable speed limit that ensures the safety of those who are on bicycles, who may be at some point on e-scooters, and pedestrians that are walking Downtown,” Rael told the council.

Benton said studies have shown that pedestrians have a 90 percent survival rate when hit by cars going 20 mph, but it falls to 50 percent when the car is traveling 30 mph. While many of the affected Downtown streets are only 25 mph now, he noted that many drivers tend to exceed limits by 5 mph.

Transportation officials have said New Mexico has one of the highest — if not the highest — rates of pedestrian fatalities in the U.S.; more than 400 people on foot were struck by vehicles in 2018 in Albuquerque alone.

The Mid-Region Council of Governments in 2016 compiled a report identifying the sites of all pedestrian crashes between 2010 and 2014 involving a vehicle and at least $500 in damage or personal injury. The map shows a concentration along Central Avenue, including in the Downtown core. The organization has not done a more recent report, according to a spokeswoman.

The city will have to adjust traffic signals at 45 intersections and replace 45 signs as part of the change, which Municipal Development Director Pat Montoya said will cost an estimated $70,000.

DMD spokesman Johnny Chandler said the “safe zone” designation is the first of its kind on city streets, though the New Mexico Department of Transportation has identified part of Interstate 25 in the city as a “safety corridor.” Police can double speeding fines in those state-designated corridors, but Benton said the Downtown “safe zone” resolution does not include that provision.

Benton’s resolution also reiterated many previous recommendations made for Downtown traffic flows, some of which he acknowledged require more study. That includes transitioning Tijeras and Marquette from one-way streets to two-ways. Rael said the administration needs to further evaluate that idea as it could impact access to underground parking and create other concerns.

But Montoya from Municipal Development said a bike lane reduction is among the more imminent changes. The city plans to restripe 5th between Lomas and Gold and 4th from Gold to Tijeras, moving the existing parking spaces next to the curb, where there are currently bike lanes. Crews will paint “sharrows” on the streets, indicating that cars and bikes are to share the roadway, Montoya said.

“There should be no bike lanes left (within the safe zone) once we do all of our restriping,” he said.

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