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Is it finally happening?
Have we at long last arrived at the year that traffic and parking nightmares don’t take the air out of Albuquerque’s most iconic event?
Have organizers finally worked out logistics worthy of the beautiful spectacle that is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta?
Organizers have every reason to be concerned with how it goes. The fiesta puts Albuquerque on the map, not just for New Mexicans, but for balloonists and the fans from across the globe who come to Albuquerque to see them. Planners boast it is the most-photographed event in the world and the largest ballooning event on the planet.
Unfortunately, too often the photographs are taken by spectators stuck trying to get into the event; last year was a particularly disastrous showing thanks to a perfect storm of traffic-related issues (apps that tried to send drivers down bus-only Jefferson or gave the wrong pick up/drop-off point to rideshare drivers, the Second and Alameda signal unmanned by law enforcement as the first mass ascension crowd tried to motor in, park-and-ride lots overrun with more would-be-riders than there were buses to carry them, buses abandoning folks waiting to go to the park in order to pick up folks leaving the field, and a few wrecks to further jam up the works).
But this year, according to reporter Matthew Reisen in Friday’s Journal, organizers say they’ve done a big-picture examination and worked with the University of New Mexico Civil Engineering Department to avoid a repeat performance of fiascos of years past. The wide range of adjustments offer some cautious optimism it will be easier to get to and out of the 2019 event.
On the heels of 2018, traffic is rightly top of mind this year. A few notable improvements that should hopefully make a difference:
⋄ Attendees now have to buy park-and-ride tickets in advance and only online, which should allow for a more accurate head count for bus planning. Those tickets will be sold for specific time slots, and when the 225 school buses (plus 10 reticulated city buses on weekends) are full, ticket sales will stop.
⋄ At the Coronado Mall, Hoffmantown Church and Cottonwood Mall park-and-ride locations, organizers have made arrangements so more buses can be loaded simultaneously, getting more attendees on the road.
⋄ To minimize bottlenecks, this year fiestagoers will be taken to different drop-off points depending on whether they arrive via East Side or West Side park-and-ride bus, rideshare or taxi, and those driving themselves will be routed to opposite ends of the park based on the side of town they’re coming from.
• Around 1,500 new parking spaces will be available to West Side traffic on 11 acres just south of Alameda, as organizers moved some of their RV spaces to the north end of the complex. East side traffic will get more parking in business lots east of the field.
Fiesta planners also say they have requested that apps like Waze and Google Maps not direct people into the bus and shuttle routes, which added to traffic woes last year.
Metal detectors and drone monitors
Safety is also a major focus this year. Attendees will have their bags checked and for the first time be subject to a metal detector – routine at many other local venues and wise requirements. And for the second year in a row, planners have hired a company to monitor airspace for unauthorized drones to keep the pilots of balloons as well as law enforcement and news helicopters safe.
Help event take off without a hitch
And that brings us to what everyone who isn’t planning the city’s biggest party of the year can do to help it run smoothly.
Reserve park-and-ride seats early and show up on time. Use alternatives to driving – park-and-ride, rideshares and bicycles (there are 1,000 slots at bike valet). Those who choose to drive can carpool, leave early, drive carefully (keep your eyes on the road, not the sky) and plan the route and where to park well in advance.
Avoid delays at the gate by following the rules and leaving alcohol, pets, glass containers and weapons at home. And be patient as bags and coolers are searched and remember it’s all about a safe, family event.
To save time, don’t bring a bag. If you do, put belongings in clear bags and backpacks to access the express lines into the park.
It’s important to get this right – perhaps now even more than in years past. Remember, we are just two years away from the 50th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. If you thought this party was too popular in 2018, just you wait.
The big picture: Albuquerque and the fiesta have been putting on this show for nearly a half-century. Let’s hope these changes ease the bottlenecks that can take the air out of what should be a spectacular experience.
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 13. Visit balloonfiesta.com for details about the event. Pick up the Albuquerque Journal’s Friday edition for an in-depth special section on the fiesta.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.