ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An ambitious proposal to transform nine miles of the old Route 66 into an “Albuquerque Rapid Transit” corridor won support Tuesday from President Barack Obama.
The Federal Transit Administration recommended approval of a $69 million grant to help pay for the $119 million project, which continues to face opposition from some business owners along its route. It’s part of the president’s budget proposal, which now heads to Congress.
Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry was thrilled. “Bus rapid transit” is a centerpiece of his second-term agenda.
The FTA recommendation “means the project is viable, and we can move forward,” Berry, a Republican, said Tuesday as he prepared for meetings at the U.S. Department of Transportation. “I’ve been told this was the milestone we’ve been looking for.”
Construction could start as soon as late May, the mayor said, near Coors and Central. The rest of the roughly $50 million needed for the project – much of it also federal money – is already in place, city officials said.
The $69 million “Small Starts” grant is crucial to the financing. It still must be approved by Congress – not at all a sure thing.
But Berry and other supporters are optimistic.
David Leard of HDR Engineering, which designed the project for Albuquerque, said no construction will start until the FTA issues a letter authorizing the city to begin spending local money. That could happen even before the federal grant is made final.
“It’s a common practice in the industry,” Leard said.
Furthermore, he said, no project recommended for funding in the president’s “Small Starts” budget has ever failed to receive the funding later.
“Once they’re recommended,” Leard said, “they’ve been funded.”
If the FTA authorizes the city to start spending, Leard said, there’s “very little risk, if any,” that the city wouldn’t get the money.
Albuquerque was among 10 cities to receive the recommendation for “Small Starts” funding. At least three other cities are in line for bus-rapid-transit funding, and three are working streetcar systems.
The Albuquerque proposal is for something called bus rapid transit, or BRT. The local project is known as “Albuquerque Rapid Transit.”
It’s supposed to mimic light rail but cost far less.
Crews would build a network of canopy-covered stations in the middle of Central Avenue, roughly every one-quarter to one-half mile between Louisiana and Coors. For most of the route, there would be dedicated lanes – one in each direction usually – for buses to travel in.
That would reduce the traffic capacity for regular cars.
The work would add landscaping, wider sidewalks where there’s room and other improvements.
The proposal has won broad support at City Hall. The City Council last year unanimously agreed to authorize borrowing $13 million to help make the city’s financial contribution.
But the project has drawn opposition from about 150 businesses. Some merchants in Nob Hill, for example, say construction of the project could put them out of business by making the area difficult to get to.
They also fear that reducing the traffic capacity on Central – from two lanes in each direction to one, in some places – will push customers away and damage the charm of the old Route 66 corridor.
Albuquerque, along Central Avenue, is home to the longest intact urban stretch of the old highway that once connected Chicago and Los Angeles.
Opponents of ART haven’t given up. Steve Schroeder, owner of Nob Hill Music and founder of the website SaveRt66.org, pointed out that the president’s budget is simply a proposal, not yet approved by Congress.
“I am disappointed,” he said Tuesday, “but I’m also hopeful this is going to get reviewed again.”
City Council President Dan Lewis, a Republican, said Tuesday that he won’t support this project moving forward “without more buy-in from the people that will be immediately impacted by it the most, which are the land owners and the business owners along Central.”
City Councilor Ken Sanchez, a Democrat whose family operates an accounting firm along west Central Avenue, said he supports the project in concept but that the city must have an “in-depth conversation” with merchants to ensure they aren’t forced out of business by the construction or other changes.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who once represented much of east Central Avenue as a city councilor, said he was pleased to see the project included in the president’s budget.
“Albuquerque Rapid Transit is a major investment in the infrastructure of the Central Avenue corridor,” he said, “and gives us the opportunity to boost economic development and connect people to the many businesses, schools, services, and unique experiences the city has to offer. A project of this size necessitates strong community input and it needs to be done right.”
Berry, for his part, said the city will work to minimize the disruption caused by construction. A local contractor, Bradbury Stamm, has been selected for the work.
“We’ve been able to design a world-class project,” Berry said, “because we have listened, we’ve talked to the experts, we’ve talked to the leading transportation minds, and Albuquerque will have, in my opinion, the premier rapid transit project in the country.”
The goal is to finish work in time for passengers to be boarding the new buses by September next year.