Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
It’s been a bumpy ride.
But the orange barrels and lane closures are just about over – a few days ahead of schedule, even.
The governor, mayor and others will gather this week to celebrate completion of the massive Paseo del Norte/Interstate 25 project.
Come Tuesday, drivers will pass through four new bridges and three new interchanges – a $93 million effort to upgrade a critical link between Albuquerque’s east and west sides.
And what isn’t there is important, too. The upgrades got rid of traffic lights that interrupted traffic along Paseo at Jefferson, for example.
“It’s been a hassle,” Albuquerque resident David Raguini said Friday as he fueled up his car near the interchange. “I’m happy to hear it’s almost done.”
Based on city estimates, 150,000 vehicles a day traveled through the Paseo/I-25 interchange in 2012, or 56 million vehicles a year.
“So many people on the West Side were stuck in traffic day after day, and that’s time that they weren’t able to spend with their families, or work, or other productive ways,” Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry said in a recent interview.
Traffic headaches have eased as – bit by bit – individual portions of the project opened. And overnight Monday, the last new flyover opens, four days ahead of schedule.
“I think that’s a successful project,” Michael Smelker of the state Department of Transportation said.
Gov. Susana Martinez said the improved interchange will be an asset to the economy and public safety. She thanked crews for completing it on time and on budget.
“We are incredibly grateful to all those who had a hand in designing and constructing this project – they’ve done great work,” she said in a written statement. “And we thank the people of New Mexico for their patience as we worked to complete this project as quickly as possible.”
But getting the project off the ground was not easy.
The severe recession that gripped New Mexico and the nation dried up funding for costly highway projects in 2011, causing state and federal officials to scrap an earlier plan for a $360 million interchange.
Also that year, Albuquerque voters rejected Berry’s proposal to issue $25 million in bonds to help pay for the Paseo/I-25 interchange.
Necessity prompted government leaders to piece together funding sources for a less costly project.
“This is a project that nobody could find a way to get done because nobody had all the money,” Berry said.
But the pieces fell into place in 2012. Albuquerque voters approved a $50 million bond issue after state and federal sources provided $38 million for the project. Bernalillo County voters that year chipped in an additional $5 million.
Transportation officials drafted a scaled-back project with a $93 million price tag.
Berry and others sold the project to voters in 2012 as a way to improve safety, cut commuting times and promote economic development in the region.
“It’s a great example of what we can do when we work together,” Berry said. “I’m proud of everybody pulling together and getting this done. I think it sets a good precedent as we look at other large-scale projects for the region.”
Paseo del Norte is a major east-west commuter corridor over the Rio Grande, serving an estimated 180,000 people who live in Rio Rancho, Corrales and west Albuquerque north of Montaño Road, according to the Mid-Region Council of Governments.
The MRCOG estimated the interchange improvements would create 3,000 additional jobs and generate $2.8 billion in economic growth over 20 years.
The project is expected to provide those benefits by cutting the “effective distance” for drivers who use the interchange, reducing transportation costs for goods and commuters, and giving businesses better access to labor, the agency said in a 2011 report.
Supporters say it could save more than 350,000 hours of travel time a year, the equivalent of more than an hour per person each week.
“The big issue in Albuquerque is we have a large population on the West Side who work on the east side of the river,” said Dewey Cave, executive director of MRCOG.
Over the past 20 years, the West Side has experienced the region’s fastest growth, while the bulk of jobs are located in the center of Albuquerque, Cave said.
City voters responded by approving the bond issue by a 67 percent majority on Nov. 6, 2012.
With funding lined up for the $93 million project, officials named a design-build team in August 2013 and broke ground the following month.
The construction project brought additional pain for commuters, with frequent road closures backing up traffic on I-25, Paseo and other roads in the area.
When activity reached its peak this year, 380 workers in shifts worked around the clock to rebuild three interchanges: I-25/Paseo, Jefferson/Paseo and I-25/San Antonio.
In all, crews built five new bridges, including a flyover that will provide northbound I-25 drivers with a free-flow ramp to westbound Paseo. That’s the piece expected to open by early Tuesday.
Two other major bridges have already opened: the Paseo overpass at Jefferson and a southbound frontage road off-ramp that allows eastbound traffic on Paseo to flow to southbound I-25.
A fourth bridge is a new braided ramp for northbound traffic between San Mateo and San Antonio. It’s already open.
A fifth new bridge will allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross I-25 just south of Paseo and will open some time this week.
In the final analysis, the region is left with the best interchange it could afford in tough economic times, Cave said.
“The original project design would have cost $360 million, involving several flyovers and a larger footprint,” he said. “That would have been a project that would have served for 20 to 30 years.”
The new interchange is likely to ease the commute for West Side residents over the next decade or two, Cave said.
“Bernalillo County had come to accept a smaller version of what needs to be done to help the traffic situation,” he said. “What can we do that’s going to give us relief over the next 10 to 20 years? You are still going to have to do something beyond that.”
And the work on this version of the project isn’t entirely done yet. Crews will come back this spring to make minor improvements when the weather is warmer.
Atop the asphalt, for example, they will add a layer designed to reduce noise.
Jeremiah Avila, who lives near the interchange, said he’s eager to see completion of the project.
“It used to be horrible going across the river using Paseo,” he said after stopping at a gas station on Jefferson. “Hopefully, the new flyover will speed things up.”