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Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
The word “boondoggle” came up more than once.
But a noisy four-hour debate late Monday didn’t soften City Council support for the plan to transform Central Avenue into a rapid transit corridor with a nine-mile network of bus-only lanes and canopy-covered bus stations.
City councilors voted 7-2 in favor of Albuquerque Rapid Transit, a priority of Mayor Richard Berry, who hopes to see service start by September next year. The council resolution authorizes the acceptance of nearly $70 million in federal money for the project.
“Of course, it’s going to cause some disruption and make people fearful of change,” said Councilor Don Harris, who described it as a tough decision. But “this is a rare opportunity. I think we need to take it.”
Berry called ART a “catalytic project” that will help inject new life into Central Avenue.
“It’s great for transit,” he said in an interview. “It’s great for economic opportunity. … We’re going to have a more thriving Main Street because of it.”
Councilors Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña voted “no.”
Peña said she fears the project won’t help people in her West Side-based district and that it should go before voters.
“I really believe this ART project is going to slow down traffic,” she said.
Residents who signed up to address the council Monday generally blasted the $119 million proposal for one reason or another and opponents cheered them on. Supporters were in the minority.
Council President Lewis threatened several times to stop the meeting, if necessary, to restore order, but it never came to that.
Security officers evicted two people who displayed an upside-down American flag and argued with Lewis about taking it down. Larger banners aren’t permitted in the council chambers.
The council vote, in any case, adopted a resolution that’s critical to carrying out the project – acceptance of a $70 million “Small Starts” grant from the Federal Transit Administration.
The grant hasn’t actually been approved yet, but city executives are confident they will get the money because President Barack Obama included it in his budget recommendation. No project in a similar situation, city officials say, has ever failed to be offered the money eventually.
The city says it has another $31 million in federal money it can tap for ART, in addition to about $18 million in city funding.
The Berry administration says it won’t launch construction until the federal government issues a letter authorizing the start of work. Crews could begin the project as soon as May.
But the project has faced intense opposition – primarily because there would be fewer lanes for regu lar traffic, a necessity to make way for the new bus-only lanes. Business owners also say they fear going under, either during construction of the project or afterward if traffic congestion scares people away from Central.
“This fixation on tearing up the middle of Central – I don’t think this is the answer,” said Keif Henley, co-owner of the Guild Cinema in the heart of Nob Hill.
Charles Hickam, who owns a home three blocks from a proposed ART station, called the project a “utopian boondoggle” that won’t result in the benefits promised by the mayor.
Some critics said they liked the idea in general, but not the design of running the bus down the middle of the street, which limits the ability of other drivers to make left turns from Central.
Supporters have made economic development a key part of their argument. Mayor Berry and others say the new bus system would link major employers and attractions along the old Route 66 and spur denser development.
They also say the project will bring wider sidewalks and new landscaping to much of Central Avenue, making the area more friendly to pedestrians.
A faster, more reliable bus system is, of course, the heart of the project. The dedicated lanes would allow the buses to bypass most traffic congestion and the buses would communicate with traffic signals to coordinate their travel, supporters say.
Councilor Isaac Benton won approval late Monday for an amendment that calls for the city to narrow the width of some lanes between the Rio Grande and Downtown to make it easier to add landscaping and wider sidewalks.
“We’ve built streets in Albuquerque for speed,” Benton said. “… We’ve really got to start building streets for multimodality.”
The Berry administration resisted the amendment at first, but later agreed to accept it.
The ART vote didn’t fall along partisan lines. Democrats Ken Sanchez, Isaac Benton, Pat Davis and Diane Gibson joined Republicans Brad Winter, Trudy Jones and Harris in support.
The resolution was co-sponsored by Sanchez and Harris.
Opposed were Lewis, a Republican, and Peña, a Democrat.
Berry is a Republican.