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Rapid transit debate heads to City Council on Monday night

The city of Albuquerque is distributing these renderings about the proposed Albuquerque Rapid Transit bus, including a canopy-covered station that would sit at Cornell and Central, a key entrance to the University of New Mexico, and the kiosks at which passengers would buy tickets before boarding the bus at the proposed Downtown bus station at Second and Copper NW.

The city of Albuquerque is distributing these renderings about the proposed Albuquerque Rapid Transit bus, including a canopy-covered station that would sit at Cornell and Central, a key entrance to the University of New Mexico, and the kiosks at which passengers would buy tickets before boarding the bus at the proposed Downtown bus station at Second and Copper NW.

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The rowdy debate over Albuquerque Rapid Transit will hit the City Council tonight.

Supporters and opponents of the project have already packed public meetings on the proposal over the past month, peppering city executives with questions and shouting out their arguments.

But the debate will move into the council chambers tonight – when councilors are to consider authorizing the acceptance of a federal grant for the project.

Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican, has made bus rapid transit along Central Avenue a centerpiece of his second-term agenda.

A bipartisan pair of councilors, Democrat Ken Sanchez and Republican Don Harris, are sponsoring the proposal to accept the federal money for ART.

The council meeting starts at 5 p.m. in the basement of the city-county Government Center, One Civic Plaza NW.

People who sign up to speak are generally given two minutes each to address the council.

Here’s a look at some frequently asked questions about the project and answers gleaned from city responses and documents.

Is Albuquerque Rapid Transit a done deal?

A. No, but it’s getting close.

Albuquerque city councilors will consider tonight legislation authorizing the acceptance of a $70 million “Small Starts” grant from the federal government. Rejection of the money would stop the project.

The federal government itself also has to make a final decision on the grant. The money was included in President Barack Obama’s budget proposal to Congress, but it hasn’t been approved yet.

The city says that every past project recommended in the president’s budget has been offered the money eventually, but construction wouldn’t begin until the federal government issues a letter authorizing the work.

When is this supposed to happen?

Construction could begin in May, probably at the ends of the route, then crews would work their way toward the middle. If all goes well, service could start in September 2017.

What will the city do to help businesses during construction?

The contractor, Bradbury Stamm, plans to work on 2,000-foot sections at a time. Businesses can expect the work to last about 60 days.

The plan is for one lane of Central in each direction to remain open.

The city is also working with nonprofit groups on a plan to help businesses with marketing and other “technical assistance” and to provide loans to help to offset some lost sales.

How much does the project cost?

About $119 million. The biggest chunk of money is a federal “Small Starts” grant of $70 million. The city has about $31 million in other federal funding that can be applied to the project.

The City Council has already approved borrowing about $13 million through bonds backed by revenue from gross receipts taxes.

The city has about $5 million in other funds available, including money from general-obligation bonds approved by voters for “streetscape” and similar improvements.

What if there are cost overruns?

The contractor, Bradbury Stamm, will have to guarantee a maximum price and schedule. The amount could increase, however, if the city requests additional work – like, say, the addition of other stops along the route or more traffic lights.

Why not build it on a different route?

Central Avenue is the heaviest-used transit corridor in the city. In other words, the city believes the demand is there for improved service. The route also links major employers, such as Presbyterian Healthcare, the University of New Mexico and government offices Downtown; the Nob Hill and Old Town shopping centers; and neighborhoods on both sides of the river.

Why not improve north-south routes instead?

The city’s application for federal funding focused on Central, so the money cannot be used for a project elsewhere.

The Mid-Region Council of Government, however, has overseen a study examining a bus rapid transit system that would connect the Albuquerque International Sunport, Isotopes Park and the University of New Mexico.

Starting at the airport, the route would generally run north along Yale, head west along Gibson or Cesar Chavez, then go north along University up to Menaul, passing through UNM at one point.

There’s no funding in place yet to build or operate that system.

What happens to Rapid Ride and the “66” service?

The “66” bus line along Central will stay in service. It will share the main traffic lanes with other traffic, not use the ART-only lane.

The Rapid Ride routes that run primarily along Central will be replaced by ART, but the Rapid Ride route that connects the northern West Side with UNM would remain in service.

What will the fare cost?

The same as any other bus ticket. The regular fare will remain $1, unless the city changes it for the whole bus system.

Who’s going to ride it?

This is a major point of contention in the debate. Opponents don’t believe the service will be different enough from Rapid Ride to attract new riders.

The city says the faster, more reliable service will draw new riders, just as Rapid Ride did when it came online a dozen years ago. The city says a model developed by Federal Transit Administration projects daily ridership of about 15,750 on ART, compared with about 8,500 a day on Rapid Ride now.

Why is the city getting rid of left-hand turns?

The ART stations and lanes are in the middle of the road. That means drivers will turn left at signalized intersections. They can also make protected “U-turns” at the lights.

The city plans to add traffic signals at six intersections along the route. Average spacing between signals will be about 1,000 feet, or less than a quarter of a mile.

What’s the city’s security plan?

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, the city Transit Department says.

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.

Can anyone else use the dedicated lane if the bus isn’t there?

Public-safety vehicles responding to an emergency could use it. There’s no physical barrier planned between the ART lane and the regular lanes, so drivers wouldn’t be prevented from moving in and out of it briefly to avoid someone who’s parallel parking or if there’s some other temporary obstruction.

Why are stations in the middle of the street? Is that safe?

The mid-Central location allows buses going in each direction to use the same bus stop. The buses will have doors on both sides. There will be a signalized crosswalk for people to reach the middle of the roadway from the curb.

Will my water rates go up because of the project?

Probably not. The water authority doesn’t anticipate an increase in rates as it has enough to move lines, but it says it hasn’t ruled out a rate increase if the required work turns out to be more extensive than anticipated.

Will this project push more traffic onto Lomas, Lead and Coal?

Yes. Transportation experts forecast an extra 300 vehicles during the afternoon peak hour will use Lomas, Lead and Coal instead of Central. They say the roads have capacity to handle the extra traffic.

Will the project worsen traffic congestion on Central itself?

Opponents certainly think so. City officials contend that all intersections will still fall within the city’s standards for acceptable levels of service.

How much will it cost to operate ART? What are the hours?

The city estimates it will cost about $2 million a year to operate the system from 5:30 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. – a cost that would come out of the city’s operating budget. If there’s enough money, city officials say, they would like to expand the operating hours.

Whose idea was it?

The city has planned Central Avenue as its mass-transit corridor for years. Mayor Richard Berry, however, has been pitching the idea of bus rapid transit for Central since at least 2011.

Is this an economic development project?

In some ways, yes. City officials say they believe the addition of ART will attract denser private development along Central Avenue and revitalize the area with public improvements.

About 98 percent of the corridor will have 6-foot-wide sidewalks, and the remainder will have sidewalks at least 4 feet wide. Curbside landscaping will be added in 34 percent of the corridor.

Albuquerque Rapid Transit: The basics

  • a01_jd_21mar_ART_logoThe buses travel in a dedicated lane, allowing them to bypass traffic congestion. Where a separate lane isn’t practical, they mingle with regular traffic.
  • The bus stations and dedicated lanes would be in the middle of Central Avenue, between Louisiana and Coors. The buses would operate beyond those boundaries — west to Unser and east to Tramway, plus north along Louisiana to Uptown — but without the dedicated lanes, similar to how Rapid Ride operates now.
  • The design would vary along the route. In the Nob Hill area, for example, the proposal is to reduce the lanes of traffic from two each way to just one each way, with the dedicated bus lanes in the middle of the street. In some spots, the three lanes of traffic now going each way would be reduced to two lanes each way to make room for the buses and landscaping. In others areas — between Atrisco and Coors — there’s enough room for ART lanes to be added without reducing the lanes for other traffic.
  • The buses communicate with traffic signals to reduce the wait times at red lights.
  • Passengers board the bus from raised platforms level with the floor of the bus. Stations would be spaced out roughly every one-quarter to one-half mile.
  • Passengers buy tickets or passes at kiosks before getting on the bus.