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City Council to weigh in on divisive ART plan

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Over the last two weeks, angry residents have shouted down and mocked city executives trying to explain the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project.

Now it’s time to learn where city councilors stand.

A bipartisan pair of councilors plans to introduce legislation Monday that would authorize the acceptance of federal money and earmark it for construction of the project — a key initiative of Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican.

The bill would be voted on March 21. It’s sponsored by Ken Sanchez, a Democrat from the West Side, and Don Harris, a Republican whose district covers much of the foothills.

Sanchez said it’s simply time for the council to vote the project up or down. The city learned last month that President Barack Obama has recommended about $70 million in “Small Starts” grant funding for the project.

“I don’t know of any city in America that’s turned down a transportation bill with that kind of funding,” Sanchez said Friday.

Mayor Berry’s administration has said the city could start construction as early as May — assuming federal approval — even if the council hadn’t formally accepted the federal grant by then. That’s because the city has other money on hand to begin the work.

But crews wouldn’t be able to finish the project if councilors later rejected the federal funding.

The Sanchez-Harris legislation would ensure a council decision before work starts.

City Council President Dan Lewis, a Republican, said Friday that he will oppose the project.

“I don’t believe mass transit is a core function of government,” he said, “and I don’t believe we should move forward on the project unless there’s buy-in from the landowners and people most impacted on the project who live along Central.”

The project has support of such large employers along the route as the University of New Mexico and Presbyterian Healthcare Services.

And it has been generally popular at City Hall, with support from Republicans and Democrats alike. Just last year, the council unanimously approved a $45 million bond package that included $13 million in city money for rapid-transit-related improvements along Central Avenue. That money would form the bulk of the city’s financial contribution to Albuquerque Rapid Transit.

But that vote happened before the raucous public meetings over the last two weeks, where people have shouted at members of the project team, accused them of misinformation and laughed derisively during presentations.

At one meeting, an opponent stood on a chair. At another, Councilor Isaac Benton, a Democrat and supporter of ART, confronted a man who interrupted him.

Yet another public forum is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Albuquerque Convention Center.

Monday’s council meeting starts at 5 p.m. at City Hall.

The project involves constructing a nine-mile network of bus stations and bus-only lanes in the middle of Central.

The goal is to provide fast, reliable service to key areas of Albuquerque with a bus system that mimics a light-rail system; dedicated lanes throughout most of the corridor would allow rapid-transit buses to bypass traffic. Supporters also say it would attract both residential and business development, transforming parts of Central.

But opponents say the city’s plans aren’t practical because the project would reduce the number of lanes available for general traffic on key stretches of Central. They’ve also raised questions about the cost, security on the buses and the potential danger of locating bus stations in the middle of the street.

The federal funding isn’t final yet. But city officials say every project that’s won a similar recommendation for funding has eventually received the money, and no construction would begin until the federal government approves starting the work.

If all goes according to plan, service could start in September 2017.

Also scheduled for introduction Monday is a proposal to establish an advisory board for merchants and property owners along Central. The members would offer advice on transit security and construction in the corridor.

The bill is sponsored by Sanchez and Brad Winter, a Republican from the Northeast Heights.

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