Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Albuquerque may soon get the cash infusion needed to begin widening the western end of Paseo del Norte and to improve sidewalks and other infrastructure in the Wells Park neighborhood.
The city would fund those and other projects under a newly conceived financing proposal meant to accelerate key roadwork and stimulate the pandemic-battered economy.
Under the plan, the city would this month issue about $56 million worth of bonds, which it would pay back over 15 years with revenue from a 0.25% transportation tax that voters renewed in November. Officials say getting the large chunk of money immediately would allow certain road projects to move forward faster than if the city waited for dollars to accumulate.
“We can finally fix this instead of just talking about it for another 10 years,” Mayor Tim Keller said Wednesday while standing along a stretch of Paseo del Norte notorious for its traffic congestion.
The proposal still requires City Council approval, although Councilor Isaac Benton said members have played a role in the plan by helping create the working list of projects that bond proceeds will support.
“(This) will fund projects all over the city,” he said.
In his Downtown-based district, for example, Wells Park would get $4 million for “complete streets” work, such as lighting, sidewalks and bicycle lanes.
Under the current proposal, bond proceeds would also support a new grade-level railroad crossing on Marquette, helping link Albuquerque Convention Center users and others in the city center to developments east of the tracks.
But no project would get more funding than the expansion of Paseo del Norte on the West Side. Under the plan, $12 million would help pay for widening the road from two to four lanes between Kimmick and Rainbow.
The city had already accumulated about $5 million for the project with help from legislators. But Cynthia Borrego, who represents Northwest Albuquerque on the City Council, said the new money means the two-phase project is about 75% funded.
The city has already hired a consultant and begun the design process, which a city spokesman said should take 18 to 24 months to complete before construction can begin.
“It’s really important because we have communities farther west that are developed already so … it’s basically serving a population that is already existing,” Borrego said. “I don’t consider it sprawl.”
Other proposed projects include an interior roadway at Los Altos Park, upgrading San Pedro near Alameda, and adding streetlights on the West Mesa and elsewhere in the city.
City voters first passed the 0.25% transportation tax in 1999. They renewed it in 2009. Unlike those previous versions of the tax, voters in 2019 approved the tax without a 10-year expiration date. That created a new opportunity to borrow against future revenues by issuing 15-year bonds, Albuquerque Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael said.
The tax – part of the gross receipts tax – brings in about $38 million to $40 million annually, Rael said, but only about $19 million is dedicated to road improvements. The rest goes to public transit, trails and bikeways.
Under the current bond proposal, the city would have to use about $4.5 million of the annual tax revenue to pay the debt.
Rael said the city is confident it can make the payments despite the current economic uncertainty. Although the city’s gross receipts tax revenue has fallen during the pandemic, the losses have been less than anticipated.
“The interest rates are so good today that it makes sense for us to make this investment now (rather than) to wait. … It just would be a lot more expensive and take a lot longer” to do the work otherwise, he said.
Former Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca first proposed the 0.25% transportation tax in 1999. He said Wednesday that borrowing against it is not inherently problematic, saying he is more concerned about where the money ultimately goes. He said one of his primary objectives was ensuring the city had money available to fix deteriorating roadways in the older parts of Albuquerque.
“I don’t want to see a lot of money going out to the undeveloped areas,” he said.