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Questions remain as ABQ Rapid Transit nears construction

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The financial and legal future of Albuquerque Rapid Transit remains unsettled even as the city prepares to begin construction later this summer.

A pair of budget proposals circulating in Congress threaten to leave ART without the full $69 million recommended by President Barack Obama in next year’s budget – funding that’s crucial to the project. The money would come through a “Small Starts” grant issued by the Federal Transit Administration.

A bill in the U.S. House of Representatives would provide only $50 million for Albuquerque Rapid Transit, and a Senate proposal would shrink the pot of money from which projects like ART are funded.

Still, neither proposal is likely to become law without changes. Instead, federal officials often craft a broader spending plan later in the summer or fall – a process that might continue past the Nov. 8 general election.

“We have no reason to believe we won’t get the full Small Starts funding,” ART spokeswoman Joanie Griffin said Tuesday.

The city team working on Albuquerque Rapid Transit says no project in a similar position – recommended in the president’s budget – has ever failed to be offered the money eventually.

Opponents of the project also are challenging it in U.S. District Court. A hearing on whether to grant their motion to halt Albuquerque Rapid Transit is scheduled to begin July 27.

Shortly after the court hearing, city officials hope to receive a letter from the federal government authorizing the start of construction.

Crews would begin work in early August.

The $119 million proposal is a priority of Mayor Richard Berry. It would create a nine-mile network of bus-only lanes and bus stations in the middle of Central Avenue.

The goal would be to provide faster, more reliable bus service in the heart of the city and attract redevelopment along the old Route 66. Supporters say Albuquerque Rapid Transit buses would mimic a light-rail system, but at a much lower price, and the federal government would provide most of the funding.

Opponents say the project would choke traffic on Central and violate laws on environmental protection and historic preservation. They say construction and traffic problems would scare customers away, forcing businesses to close.

Restaurant group joins ART fight

The New Mexico Restaurant Association is joining the fight against Albuquerque Rapid Transit.

The association says 148 restaurants lie along the construction route.

“If ART is built as designed,” the group said in a news release, “Albuquerque will have more diesel buses that connect to nowhere along a route that is already filled with empty buses.”

The city, in turn, says its buses are often filled to capacity along Central Avenue and that fast, reliable transit service will make the area more pedestrian-friendly and attractive for redevelopment.

One lane in each direction would remain open during construction.