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Bus rapid transit could transform Albuquerque

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If it works, the city’s proposed $100 million Albuquerque Rapid Transit Line will be much more than an express bus flying down Central Avenue in a dedicated lane. It will change how Burqueños use their city and in the process help transform our economy.

Albuquerque has long worked to get businesses to move here, mostly by lowering the cost of doing business. That will continue, but ART Line signals a new push to bring people here, people who have the energy and creativity to build a new economy.

The ART Line is intended to help create a string of fascinating urban environments along Albuquerque’s Route 66. You would be able to shop for Asian sauces and Central American folk art in the International District, hit a gallery Downtown, have a New Mexican dinner in Atrisco, catch a show at Popejoy Hall and get a drink in Nob Hill, all by hopping on and off the ART Line.

That urban lifestyle, it is hoped, would attract people, specifically younger, energetic, creative people who love city living.

Albuquerque's proposed ART Line is patterned after Cleveland's Healthline, a high-speed transportation infrastructure project that has spawned $5.8 billion in public and private investment along Cleveland's Euclid Avenue corridor. (Courtesy of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority)

Albuquerque’s proposed ART Line is patterned after Cleveland’s Healthline, a high-speed transportation infrastructure project that has spawned $5.8 billion in public and private investment along Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue corridor. (Courtesy of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority)

That is a great deal to ask of what City Hall describes as a subway with a view, but urban transportation experts swear this stuff works. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a nonprofit think tank in New York, says Cleveland’s $50 million investment in its Euclid Avenue bus line, called Healthline, has spawned $5.8 billion in public and private investment along that corridor.

“Of course, this new development was by no means the result of the transit investment alone,” the institute reported. It was coupled with “a concerted effort to channel new development to the Healthline” through partnerships with “strong community development corporations, private foundations and municipal agencies which in turn accessed a wide variety of financing options, assembled land, and worked closely with developers.”

Albuquerque city government says there is nearly $1 billion worth of development possible just on the vacant land along the Central Avenue corridor.

Physically, ART would consist of a bus traveling in a dedicated lane down the middle of Central Avenue between Louisiana and Coors. Central Avenue traffic lanes would shrink. Sidewalks would be wider. There would be more landscaping along the route.

People would board the bus from raised, architecturally interesting platforms. The buses would have priority at traffic lights, so they ought to be able to cruise along Central at an acceptably brisk pace.

The project would succeed to the extent that the new transportation infrastructure changes the community’s psyche. Are enough of us who are either already here or who might want to move here prepared to abandon a suburban lifestyle for an urban lifestyle?

Most Burqueños live in what are essentially suburbs, in the form of subdivisions, located around the city. These suburbs are connected by very wide, very ugly commercial strips, like Eubank or Menaul. The city was designed to move a great many cars from suburban homes to commercial strips where parking is ample.

Many younger people and aging baby boomers don’t want that suburban, car-centric lifestyle any longer, at least according to some developers I’ve met. They want walkable neighborhoods, where they find interesting shops and fun taverns. Ideally, they can walk to work, commute to work on a comfortable mass transit system, or go to their spare bedroom for a day at the office.

Albuquerque planners think the ART Line, patterned after a project in Cleveland, can help create an exciting and appealing new urban environment. (Albuquerque Journal File Photo)

Albuquerque planners think the ART Line, patterned after a project in Cleveland, can help create an exciting and appealing new urban environment. (Albuquerque Journal File Photo)

Nob Hill, the University of New Mexico area and the area east of Downtown called Edo resemble what urban philosophers have in mind. The hope is the ART Line will be a catalyst for that kind of development.

“I want to get on the ART Line, go to great neighborhoods, have a good dinner and some good wine, see some cool art, see some cool people,” Mayor Richard J. Berry told me. “Let’s organically grow more great neighborhoods up and down our spine. Let’s make each neighborhood its own unique place.”

“We can be a real center for the creative class,” Berry said. “You’ve got to make it a place where people can gather and connect. It’s got to be unique.”

Albuquerque would become a destination for reasons other than great weather, cheap labor and access to mountain trails, ski slopes and hunting.

ART Line would depend on developers’ willingness to build in some currently distressed neighborhoods. Motorists would have to be willing to tolerate slower speeds around Central. Merchants would have to believe they can profit by locating in a great neighborhood, where there is little parking.

People already living in those neighborhoods would have to accept an influx of outsiders. People who don’t live here now would have to be intrigued enough to come. Burqueños would be asked to leave their cars at home and walk more.

It could happen. Really. It could.

UpFront is a daily front page news and opinion column. Journal writer Winthrop Quigley can be reached at wquigley@abqjournal.com.

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