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It’s wrong to throw incumbent Benton under the ART bus debacle

It’s official: Everybody loves to hate ART. Even public transportation enthusiasts like me have a hard time looking at the bone-headed design, the construction and equipment delays, and the generally ham-fisted way the project was managed without rolling our eyes and shaking our heads. What a crying shame. This has given public transportation a black eye it does not deserve.

But to blame (Councilor Isaac) Benton for the shortcomings of ART is unfair. Let’s put the blame where it squarely belongs: Mayor (Richard) Berry. Owing to my participation on the 21st Century Transportation Task Force (2008) and my stint as a commissioner on the Environmental Planning Commission (2011-2018, representing Benton’s district), I had a front-row seat for how this project developed. At a luncheon shortly after Berry’s election, he looked around the room and said, “Who here supported the streetcar?” He delighted in having killed that project – even though millions of dollars had already been spent in planning. Then, in that way Berry had of reaching into the mayor toolbox and grabbing a tool without knowing what he was trying to fix, he came up with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

On April 2, 2014, in a criticism of Berry’s ABQ the Plan, I pointed out in the Albuquerque Journal that Central was ill-suited for the project. Nonetheless, as the project was rammed through, I supported a rare investment in public transportation. Why? Because, as Benton has pointed out, public transportation helps our working families – on average it costs around $10,000/year to operate a car. Because cars create more pollution and BTU’s than buses and we are damaging our planet. Because around 400 people are killed in our city every year in traffic crashes – and many more maimed. Those are good reasons to build public transportation.

Berry’s design team, on the other hand, functioned with a combination of ignorance and hubris that you usually have to go to Washington to find. They seemed to have little interest in who or why or how anyone would ride ART. We’d say, “We need more crosswalks and signals. People need to be able to cross the street!” They’d say, “That would slow down headways.” Nob Hill is probably the most glaring example. They took a street that was difficult to cross, in one of the most walkable neighborhoods in Albuquerque, and made it nearly impossible to cross. As a board member of Huning Highland and EDo boards, I sat at many meetings where Benton supported us as we fought for wider sidewalks, more street parking, crosswalks at intersections, bike lanes, removal of double bus lanes, etc. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we got some.

The bus has left the station. It would be foolish to rip up that infrastructure now, but it does need a lot of fixing. So my question for the candidates blaming Benton for ART is what were you doing as this project rolled forward? And now that it’s here, what will you do to make it work?

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