Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Critics call it a poorly thought out boondoggle.
But supporters of Albuquerque Rapid Transit say the $119 million project will transform Central Avenue – turning the old Route 66 into a more pedestrian-friendly corridor with fast, reliable bus service.
They envision denser development along Central as commuters and students fill buses on their way to the University of New Mexico, the Downtown core and other destinations.
Major employers along the route, including UNM and Presbyterian Healthcare Services, support the project, as do several business organizations, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and Nob Hill Main Street, a nonprofit economic development group.
“I know it’s a controversial issue in this community,” Presbyterian CEO Jim Hinton told the Journal, “but I think we want to be part of revitalizing that area and, if we can get more of our folks to live down there, that’d be great.”
But even supporters acknowledge that the key to the project’s success is getting more people to embrace mass transit in Albuquerque.
It’s a cultural challenge of sorts. Skeptics like to describe Albuquerque as the kind of place where people drive their own cars, even cruise for fun, and the bus is a last resort.
Janette McClelland, a street musician, describes the problem this way: In parts of Albuquerque, the bus is a “drunk tank on wheels.”
McClelland takes the bus every day – often home from work at the Target store in Uptown – and she holds some of her fellow passengers in low regard.
“It smells like a bar,” McClelland said in an interview. “The ’66’ (bus route) is notorious for it.”
Mayor Richard Berry is betting on Albuquerque Rapid Transit attracting a different clientele, and more of it. His administration is preparing to start construction in May on the nine-mile network of dedicated bus lanes and canopy-covered stations in the middle of Central, between Louisiana and Coors. The new buses would run beyond those boundaries.
Art Guzzetti, who helped manage transit systems in New Jersey and Pennsylvania before joining the American Public Transportation Association, said bus rapid transit, or BRT, can attract new riders, including passengers who ride by choice, not necessity. That’s been the experience in other parts of the country, he said.
“Everything about it is fast,” Guzzetti, based in Washington, D.C., said in a recent interview. “The waiting is faster. The boarding is faster. You put all that together and people are saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t your grandfather’s bus anymore. This is a new and better way.’ ”
President Barack Obama’s budget recommendation includes nearly $70 million for the Albuquerque project. City officials say they have about $31 million in other federal funds available and about $18 million in city sources that can go toward the project.
More than 150 businesses are opposed to the project – many in Nob Hill, where the number of lanes available to regular cars would be cut from two in each direction to one to make room for the bus-only lane.
Some business owners fear customers in cars will stay away and they won’t be replaced by customers taking the bus.
Mike D’Elia, owner of Astro-Zombies, a toy and comic shop in Nob Hill, said he doesn’t buy the city’s projections for dramatically increased ridership. It’s unrealistic, he said, to expect people in other parts of the city to visit a park-and-ride lot, then take the bus to a shopping district like Nob Hill.
Women, in particular, are uncomfortable taking the bus because of harassment, he said, and the new service isn’t substantially different from the Rapid Ride system already in place along Central.
In a letter to the Federal Transit Administration, for example, Presbyterian said transit is an integral part of the hospital’s campus. Patients take the bus, and Presbyterian provides free bus passes to employees.
Rapid transit could also aid in the development of a vacant lot across from the hospital, where a multistory project might include a hotel, retail and residential space, Presbyterian said in its letter.
In a written statement to the Journal, UNM President Bob Frank said the development of Innovate ABQ, a high-tech research and development site under development near Broadway Boulevard, “will surely increase UNM travel along the Central Avenue corridor.” And one of the planned ART stations would lie on Cornell Drive, a main entrance to the university.
“Having convenient transportation to campus is of critical importance as we continue to grow and serve the needs of our campus community, patients and other visitors,” Frank said.
A 2012 survey offers some insight into who rides today’s buses.
The survey, reported in the Mid-Region Council of Governments’ long-range transportation plan, found that:
- About 74 percent of ABQ Ride passengers didn’t have access to a vehicle on the day of their trip.
- About 35 percent of the riders were students.
- About 25 percent were unemployed and not attending school.
The survey offered some optimism about attracting a broader demographic, according to the Council of Governments, based on the service and areas served.
About 65 percent of the passengers taking the Rapid Ride blue line, for example – running from the northern West Side to UNM – had access to a car, but chose the bus instead. Much of that route would continue to operate even after ART goes into service.
The findings suggest that a “park-and-ride-based service, operating with limited stops and relatively fast, frequent service to popular destinations, has the potential to attract a distinct market of riders living on Albuquerque’s Westside,” the Council of Governments concluded.
The survey also said the Rail Runner – a train that runs from Santa Fe to Albuquerque and Los Lunas – “generally serves a less transit-dependent and higher income population than ABQ Ride.”
‘Mix of folks’
Bruce Rizzieri, director of the city’s transit department, which runs ABQ Ride, said he takes the bus himself several times a week and he isn’t the only passenger wearing a sports coat.
“We have a mix of folks,” he said. “If you want to see Albuquerque – the personalities, the people – you ride a bus.”
Dave Pennella, transportation program manager for the Mid-Region Council of Governments, said parts of Albuquerque aren’t as car-dependent as people think.
About 20-30 percent of the trips on Central, depending on the location, are made through mass transit, he said, not via cars, bicycles, walking or other modes of travel.
“That is an extremely high ridership mode share,” Pennella said.
He and Rizzieri are optimistic that bus rapid transit would attract new riders. The city’s Rapid Ride buses – which have fewer stops than the local routes, but don’t usually have a dedicated lane like ART would – helped boost ridership, they say.
The new Albuquerque Rapid Transit system would replace some Rapid Ride routes, essentially the ones that run along Central and duplicate what’s planned for ART. The Rapid Ride line that runs between the northern West Side and UNM would remain in service since it moves mostly along Interstate 40 and Lomas Boulevard.
The local “66” route that makes frequent stops along Central, between Tramway near the foothills and Unser on the West Side, would also remain. It would operate in general traffic, not the dedicated ART lanes.
In any case, transit ridership grew from about 6 million passenger boardings in 2000 to 13 million in 2012, far outpacing population growth, Pennella said.
Bus rapid transit could accelerate the trend, supporters say.
“It’s sort of like a light rail with rubber wheels, but for a much cheaper cost. … You’re taking a successful Rapid Ride system, and bringing it to a much higher level of service and reliability,” Pennella said.
Under the proposal, the Albuquerque Rapid Transit buses would arrive every seven minutes, Rizzieri said, making it easier for people to head to a bus station without worrying about the schedule.
The new rapid-transit system would operate from 5:45 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. at a cost of about $2 million a year.
McClelland, who commutes between Uptown and the Southeast Heights, said that to attract more riders, the city’s rapid-transit project will need more security guards.
“You’ve got to have better security,” McClelland said.
To that end, Rizzieri said, the city plans to add 12 security officers as part of the project. Security officers will have a bigger presence on ART vehicles than they do now on regular buses, he said.
Maintenance teams will also make the rounds twice a day to clean up litter and keep tabs on the ART stations – which will be lighted at night, including with a little neon.