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No help in sight for area plagued by pedestrian deaths

A couple run across the street against a no-walk signal Thursday evening near Louisiana and Central. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Nearly 10 months ago, Mayor Tim Keller and the city of Albuquerque signed onto the Vision Zero pledge, a promise to work to end traffic fatalities in Albuquerque.

“We’re going to make the necessary changes to end needless deaths on our roadways and protect our residents…,” Keller said at the time.

And, indeed, the city has taken a number of steps toward that goal over the last year. It cut the speed limit in Downtown. A task force spent months identifying crosswalks to update at schools citywide. And plans are in the works to revamp travel on West Central and Rio Grande.

But none of those changes is occurring in the place hit hardest by fatalities: a nearly 3-mile stretch of the International District where eight pedestrians were killed last year.

A Journal analysis found that nearly one in five fatal pedestrian crashes in Albuquerque last year occurred in the dimly lighted and highly congested portion of Central Avenue between San Pedro and Eubank, a place Department of Municipal Development officials refer to as “forgotten.”

Known for high crime rates, a large homeless population and outdated infrastructure – the area has languished for years. Meanwhile, Keller and the city adopt initiatives to end fatal crashes and pump money elsewhere in Albuquerque.

Pat Montoya, director at the DMD, acknowledged no city projects aimed at pedestrian safety are planned for that area, which he says presents its own challenges because of the population that frequents it.

“It’s unfortunate, and you hate to say it, but the population that’s on Central in that area is much different than the population in Nob Hill and much different than University and much different than Downtown,” Montoya said. “Once you hit Wyoming. … All the way up to Juan Tabo. … That stretch is tough. It’s a tough crowd and that makes it hard.”

‘Safer streets for all’

As part of the Vision Zero commitment and Complete Streets ordinance – aimed at “safer streets for all” – the city is gearing up to use millions of dollars to update 21 crosswalks at schools citywide, revamp West Central and develop a similar plan for Rio Grande Boulevard. Officials also reduced the speed limit in the Downtown area from 25 to 20. Few, if any, pedestrian fatalities last year happened in those areas.

Montoya said Vision Zero is currently one of the department’s “primary focuses,” with a task force that meets monthly to review crashes, find fatality hotspots and tries to identify areas for improvement.

“One of the things we look at with Vision Zero is where is the highest number of fatalities,” Montoya said. “We know where these trouble spots are at.”

Montoya said “it’s a given” that legislative money will go toward pedestrian safety, but no major city projects are planned “at this point” for the problem area on East Central.

Albuquerque police determined none of the fatalities in that stretch happened at crosswalks or major intersections. All were ruled as pedestrian error.

Montoya questioned whether the fatal crashes happened at night and how many of those pedestrians were drunk, high on drugs or worse.

“To say it’s a pedestrian fatality because someone is crossing the street is much different than someone that’s crossing the street that is so drunk that person doesn’t even know they’re on the street,” he said. “… A fatality is a fatality, I respect that, but on the same token, some responsibility falls on the individual.”

“Dumb is dumb, you can’t stop behavior,” Montoya later added. “People have to take some responsibility.”

Change of mindset

Scot Key, a traffic safety advocate involved in the Vision Zero initiative, said there’s one area for improvement that has nothing to do with medians or better lighting: a change of mindset toward pedestrians in those areas hardest hit.

Key criticized what he sees as a dismissive attitude toward some victims based on their class, living situation and neighborhood – which often have the poorest lighting, farthest distance between signalized crosswalks and highest need of behavioral health services.

He said the authorities, politicians and community as a whole need to care more about every pedestrian fatality in order to drive the numbers down as a whole.

“If we don’t change that, this Vision Zero thing is a complete joke, in my opinion,” Key said. “I try to stay optimistic but nothing that has happened since the day the mayor signed that really changed my feeling. … We’ve not even scratched the surface.”

He said Vision Zero, which aims to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2040, is an ambitious goal that will take a lot of work to achieve.

“I don’t know if the mayor, and those in the mayor’s office, … understand how much is really involved,” he said. Key worries that “there’s not a real dedication to Vision Zero” and that “it’s just a reaction to these few acute cases where there’s so much outrage expressed that the city theatrically reacts to it.”

DMD spokesman Johnny Chandler said multiple departments are working on the Vision Zero initiative and the city is in the process of naming a full-time coordinator. He said the city is planning to release a Vision Zero report and action plan this summer.

Councilor Pat Davis, meanwhile, said the rise in fatalities in the area comes as no surprise.

“It totally makes sense,” he said. “When you look at the maps of where we’re dealing with infrastructure needs – pedestrian fatalities, lack of lighting – all of that stuff is decades of underdevelopment.”

Part of a county project, Davis said a HAWK signal will be put in the problem area, at Texas and Central, but has taken years to get going.

“Getting one crosswalk took us four years. It’s been kind of frustrating,” he said.

Davis said when he became a city councilor, Zuni was the hotspot for pedestrian fatalities and the county used $5 million to redo it over four years. The county is planning to use federal dollars to revamp the Wyoming and Central intersection in fall 2020.

“We’re just having to take on this one at a time and there are other parts of town that have gotten a lot more attention. We’re trying to make up for it,” he said.

However, Davis said he is encouraged by the work done by Keller’s administration to update sidewalks and streets around the Trumbull neighborhood in the International District.

He hopes that commitment carries over to the Central corridor.

“We took one neighborhood off the table in one year – compared to 30 years of not doing anything. I think it was a big step but we have a long way to go,” he said.

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