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Mayor: Criticized rail spur not part of Balloon Fiesta traffic fixes

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The original feasibility study of a train spur to take people into Balloon Fiesta Park, which got neighbors in the North Edith area in an uproar, apparently is not even on the table as a possible solution to relieve traffic congestion during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Mayor Tim Keller told the Journal on Monday.

A new proposal calls for a rail siding and platform parallel to the main track, near where the North Diversion Channel curves and just west of Balloon Fiesta Park. The Rio Metro Regional Transit District and the New Mexico Department of Transportation are already planning a siding in the area.

But in 2008, the Mid-Region Council of Governments contracted a feasibility study, which was updated and released in November 2018. That study looked at a possible Rail Runner spur line to branch off the main track and follow along either side of the North Diversion Channel, which runs just west of the Balloon Fiesta Park. That route would put the Rail Runner high above, and practically in the backyards, of homes on North Edith. Neighborhood residents opposed that plan.

It’s not clear whether the new plan is less objectionable.

Steve Wentworth, president of the Alameda North Valley Association, said he was unable to comment “because the city has shared nothing with surrounding neighborhoods about that proposal.” That’s the same criticism that residents had after learning about the spur line feasibility study.

The new proposal is just one of several measures the city is looking at to relieve traffic and congestion during the Balloon Fiesta. Other items Keller detailed included replacing the smaller school buses used now for park-and-ride service with much larger city buses, changing the location of the bus turnaround at Balloon Fiesta Park to avoid a major bottleneck, and construction of a slip ramp along southbound Interstate 25 to hasten traffic leaving the fiesta.

Hot air balloons offer a static display as crowds flow between them during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in 2018.(Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The fiesta is “sort of a victim of its own success,” Keller said. Unfortunately, solutions are limited. “There’s nowhere else to go, so we’re kind of at capacity on the footprint.” All the land surrounding Balloon Fiesta Park is either privately owned or is tribal land, he said.

Keller said that after the 2018 fiesta, which included several parking and traffic problems, his administration took a renewed look at all possible options for relieving congestion. Last year’s fiesta was blessed with good weather, which also drew huge crowds. People who had already purchased tickets stood in line for hours at some park-and-ride lots, only to be turned away. For several events, the parking lots were closed because they were full, leaving frustrated motorists who had been in stop-and-go traffic for hours without any chance of getting into the park.

The quickest two changes would involve the busing plans and the slip ramp to I-25. Keller said he would hope those could be done soon, provided the city can get funding, and certainly in time for the 50th fiesta, in two years.

Busing plans

A city bus holds roughly double the number of passengers of a school bus, which generally seats 40 to 50 people. By using city buses, Keller said, the fiesta can reduce the number of buses overall, as well as the number of trips.

Another problem associated with the buses is the slow turnaround and bottleneck created at the intersection of Balloon Museum Drive and Magic Avenue. One possible solution is instead of taking the buses to the turnaround at the east side of the park, creating a turnaround on the south end of the balloon field in a now-vacant field just east of the balloon museum. There would be easier access and more room for buses to drop off or pick up riders and depart. This would shorten the length of time it takes buses to make each trip.

Bus riders would then enter the park through a south entrance.

Slip ramp

Construction of a short slip ramp would provide quicker access to I-25 south. Under the new scenario, eastbound traffic on Balloon Fiesta Parkway could turn south on the frontage road where a new slip ramp would immediately carry them onto southbound I-25. This would facilitate a faster and smoother exit of vehicles from Balloon Fiesta parking areas.

The state Legislature approved a $7.5 million capital outlay that the city will use to implement many of the traffic improvements. That funding is included in Senate Bill 280, awaiting the signature of the governor.

Paul Smith, executive director of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, said he met last week with the city’s chief operating officer, Lawrence Rael, and city Parks and Recreation Department Director Dave Simon, who explained the city’s latest vision for alleviating fiesta traffic congestion. Smith praised the city proposals for a relocated bus turnaround area and a slip ramp onto the interstate. At best, Smith said, there are about 15,000 parking spaces in and around Balloon Fiesta Park, not counting spaces for RVs.

A large crowd of people wait for departure buses at the conclusion of last year’s opening day mass ascension at Balloon Fiesta Park. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

A new railway suggestion

The rail siding is a length of track that allows a train to move off the main line so that another train can pass. Sidings are strategically located along rail lines.

Although it’s not yet clear exactly where the siding and fiesta platform might be located, a main concern, Smith said, is “you don’t want guests getting off the train in the dark and not having a clear path into the park.”

Keller said an added attraction of the siding option is that Rio Metro and the state Transportation Department are already planning to construct such a siding, though farther south than the preferred location. “So this is already happening, and they have the right of way to do it,” Keller said. “So what we’re saying is, why don’t you make the siding a little longer, so we can make it a stop?”

Rael said it’s also possible that Rio Metro will relocate the siding farther north.

Augusta Meyers, spokeswoman for Rio Metro, confirmed that $1.6 million in federal money has been acquired to build the rail siding somewhere between Alameda Boulevard and Alameda Road.

“There have been discussions with the city, and we are supportive of what they want to do, but other things would have to occur first,” Meyers said. “We’d have to work with the neighborhood, and our board, which includes representatives from the city, would have to have a formal vote. Neither of those things has yet taken place.”

Neither is it clear how many people would be served by the Rail Runner.

Meyers said each rail car could hold a maximum of about 250 people. The typical train would be made up of five cars, which means about 1,250 people could arrive or depart with each train.

The city envisions trains working in tandem, one arriving from the north and one from the south.

Keller suggested that if 10 trips were made in the morning and 10 for the evening events, 12,000 people could enter the park for each event. Assuming two people per vehicle, that could remove 6,000 vehicles from the roads and fiesta parking areas each morning and evening.

Although that many train trips may sound ambitious, “it’s certainly possible, but we may need to add more rolling stock or maybe even look at adding a few more sidings to make it feasible,” Meyers said. And not surprisingly, she said, it would almost certainly require “more financial resources.”

Residents in and around North Edith opposed to the rail spur line proposal in the original and the 2018 feasibility study commissioned by the Mid-Region Council of Governments conducted a letter-writing campaign asking the governor to use her line-item veto power to eliminate the $7.5 million the city is seeking for “Balloon Park transportation improvements.”

If the governor does that, Keller said, “you can forget about all this other stuff.”

Because of heavy turnout and traffic congestion, many people were still waiting to get into Balloon Fiesta Park last year, even as balloons inflated and launched. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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