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Rail Runner plans upset Balloon Fiesta neighbors

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Leslie Linthicum, whose north Edith home would be in the shadow of a rail spur, stands over the North Diversion Channel where the spur would align, along one side or the other. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

A proposed train spur to take the New Mexico Rail Runner to Balloon Fiesta Park as a way to help alleviate traffic congestion during the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has been called a “dumb idea” by residents living in and around the north Edith area, who would be most directly affected.

The spur line and accompanying infrastructure to support it would be prohibitively expensive, an undue burden on the neighborhood, and wouldn’t resolve the overall problem of traffic and access into the park, said Leslie Linthicum. Her north Edith home is adjacent to a parking lot just purchased by the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and just downhill from the North Diversion Channel, which the spur would follow.

But Dave Simon, director of Albuquerque’s Parks and Recreation Department, said the rail spur options are just proposals at this point “to attack traffic problems and improve access,” as is a related proposal to construct a “slip ramp” to connect traffic on southbound Interstate 25 to Balloon Fiesta Park.

A request by the city for $7.5 million in state funding recently approved by the Legislature “is to explore all manner of potential solutions for traffic access” and not specifically for the rail spurs or the slip ramp.

Members of the Alameda North Valley Association and the North Edith Corridor Association are spearheading a letter-writing campaign, asking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to use her line item veto power to eliminate the $7.5 million earmarked for “Balloon Park transportation improvements” in Senate Bill 280, now on the governor’s desk awaiting her signature. That money, which could be used for the spur line, was requested by Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller through the state capital outlay process.

Simon called it “unfortunate” that some residents are asking the governor to line item veto that request for funding.

“It’s quite clear that solving traffic and visitor access is a top priority, and these dollars are needed to make wise investments in the park and the fiesta,” he said.

Linthicum said, “The neighborhood was here long before the park and the fiesta. We’ve accommodated the Balloon Fiesta and all the events the city park puts on, over and over and over. We’re basically done.

“We look at this project as an incredible encroachment into the neighborhood for no good purpose. It’s such a dumb idea and it doesn’t really solve anything.”

Balloon Fiesta Park is the largest of Albuquerque’s city parks. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta organizes the annual ballooning event, but does not control the park.

“We did not ask for the rail spur, I don’t see how it could work or how it would solve our access and traffic problems,” AIBF executive director Paul Smith said Thursday.

The spur would branch off from the main rail line about a mile north of Alameda and west of Edith. It would then hook around, cross Edith and follow the North Diversion Channel.

Caught in a traffic jam, vehicles wait to get into Balloon Fiesta Park during last year’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, even as a morning mass ascension has already launched. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

One alternative has the rail spur aligned on the west side of the channel, which is controlled by the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority. Two pedestrian bridges would allow passengers to walk from a platform across the channel and enter the park near the site of the pilot briefing tower.

Another option has the spur aligned on the east side of the channel, which would negate the need for pedestrian bridges.

Both options would require a railroad crossing with safety gates where the tracks would cross Edith, and both would encroach on private property, possibly land owned by Sandia Pueblo.

Smith said a rail spur would force AIBF to relocate its fireworks launch location and could impede access to a newly purchased parking lot for fiesta employees and volunteers, intended to open up more parking spaces for the public.

He said he was planning to meet with the mayor and others in city government next week to get more information.

Simon noted that the idea of a connection between the Rail Runner and Balloon Fiesta Park is not new, despite complaints from area residents that they knew nothing about the proposed rail spur.

In 2008, the Mid-Region Council of Governments contracted for a feasibility study of a possible spur. That study was updated and released in November 2018.

Christine Benavidez, vice president of the North Edith Corridor Association, said area residents knew nothing about the 2008 study nor the updated one done in 2018 until Keller recently held a news conference to speak about it.

“That indicates they don’t care about our neighborhood or how it will affect us,” she said.

According to the study, and depending on the rail spur option selected, cost estimates range from $8.4 million to $11.2 million.

Steve Wentworth, president of the Alameda North Valley Association, has been involved with Balloon Fiesta Park “since it was a gravel pit,” he said. He was on the park’s project design team for the city and recently completed a term on the Balloon Fiesta Park Commission, which was formed by city ordinance to advise the city about issues related to the operation of the park, he said.

“I do support the Balloon Fiesta and do realize all of the wonderful positive economic impacts it has for the city of Albuquerque,” Wentworth said.

The original spur line study done in 2008 “never went anywhere, and I thought a spur line into the park was kind of a dumb idea at the time.” The updated 2018 study has not changed his mind.

“The neighborhood association does not support it and we don’t think it will do anything to help the traffic situation,” he said. “The spur would only be used for Balloon Fiesta and for large events at the park, which means it will be used for maybe two weeks out of the year. For that type of expenditure, it’s not a prudent use of our tax dollars. It’s just absurd.”

Rather than spend the money on a rail spur, he suggested the city spend it on buying more buses, “which would benefit all of Albuquerque year round” and could be called into shuttle service during the Balloon Fiesta in conjunction with a comprehensive traffic plan.

Augusta Meyers, spokeswoman for the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which oversees the Rail Runner trains, said a rail spur into the Balloon Fiesta Park could be part of a comprehensive traffic plan.

Her understanding was that two, five-car Rail Runner trains could provide service into the park each morning of the Balloon Fiesta. Each train would be capable of holding up to 750 seated passengers and about the same number of standing passengers, meaning 3,000 passengers could be dropped off each morning.

Even if all the funding were in place, construction would not likely begin for another two years, and only after public input was considered. “It’s a little too soon for people to get all worked up about it,” Meyers said.

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