Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
The debate over Albuquerque Rapid Transit is headed to court.
Attorneys representing residents and businesses opposed to the project – or with grave concerns about its design – filed a pair of lawsuits Monday afternoon, one in state court, the other in federal.
They accuse the city of violating the National Historic Preservation Act and other federal and city laws. Each lawsuit also asks a judge to order a halt to the project.
The lawsuits allege that ART would choke traffic along Central Avenue and disrupt the character of old Route 66. Albuquerque is home to the longest urban and intact stretch of what was once Route 66 and many historic buildings are along the route, the suits say.
Gilbert Montaño, chief of staff under Mayor Richard Berry, said the city is confident ART is legally sound and construction is still set to begin this summer. Litigation is a normal part of carrying out big transportation projects, he said.
“This is not something that in any way caught us off guard,” Montaño said Monday.
The state court lawsuit was filed by attorney John McCall on behalf of Western View Restaurant and other residents and businesses opposed to the project. They are located mostly along the western half of the ART route.
“I think we have a very good case,” McCall said Monday in an interview, “and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that there’s a tremendous amount of opposition.”
In a series of rowdy meetings earlier this year, opponents turned out in force, shouting down and mocking city executives pitching the project.
Central Avenue is already the heaviest-used transit corridor in the city, with both local routes that offer frequent stops and faster Rapid Ride buses. Albuquerque Rapid Transit would replace most of the Rapid Ride service along Central.
The city contends the new ART would provide even faster service and would arrive every seven to 10 minutes.
The city rushed through approvals for Albuquerque Rapid Transit, McCall said, in violation of legal requirements.
The federal lawsuit was filed by attorneys John Boyd and Yolanda Gallegos on behalf of a series of business and property owners.
The $119 million transit project would create a nine-mile network of dedicated bus lanes and bus stations in the middle of Central Avenue. Work could start in late July and the city hopes to have ART in operation by fall next year after about 14 months of construction.
The City Council approved the project last month on a 7-2 vote, with Councilors Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña opposed.
The project is a priority of Mayor Berry, who says it would attract development to the area.
The federal government would provide about $101 million of the funding for the project, though the largest chunk of the money – a “Small Starts” grant – has not yet been formally approved. About $18 million in city money would also go toward the project.
The federal lawsuit alleges the city failed to notify the Federal Transit Administration that ART was likely to generate intense public discussion. The plaintiffs also say the FTA improperly granted the city an exception to the standard requirement of studying the project’s potential environmental impact.
The federal complaint also alleges the city deliberately withheld information about ART from businesses and misled people by claiming the existing buses are full.
“Even the most casual observer of city buses traveling along Central Avenue knows these statements to be divorced from reality,” the lawsuit said.
The city contends that, at especially busy times of the day, it’s standing room only on some Central Avenue routes.
The state lawsuit, meanwhile, says ART would disrupt traffic so severely that it would constitute a “public nuisance.”
Along much of the route, there would be fewer lanes for regular traffic – sometimes one in each direction, rather than two – as a necessity to make way for the new bus-only lanes.
Each lawsuit names both federal and city officials as defendants.
Large employers along the route, such as the University of New Mexico and Presbyterian Hospital, have come out in support of the project.