Opponents blast ABQ Rapid Transit in court hearing - Albuquerque Journal

Opponents blast ABQ Rapid Transit in court hearing

The city plans to buy electric buses such as this one for the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)
The city plans to buy electric buses such as this one for the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Restaurateur Steve Paternoster was blunt Wednesday when asked to testify on plans for Albuquerque Rapid Transit.

“I think it’s going to be a disaster,” he said.

Paternoster, who owns Scalo Northern Italian Grill and another restaurant in Nob Hill, was on the stand Wednesday as opponents of the city’s bus-rapid-transit project tried to persuade a federal judge to order a halt to the project.

The hearing, which stretched from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., will continue today before U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales. It isn’t clear whether he’ll issue an immediate decision or take more time to rule.

To win a preliminary injunction, opponents must show that allowing construction to begin on Albuquerque Rapid Transit will cause irreparable harm.

They must also show that they’re likely to win on the merits of their case – that the Federal Transit Administration improperly failed to require the city to complete an extensive environmental analysis. They also argue that the city misled the FTA about the project.

The plaintiffs – two groups, one represented in the hearing by attorney John Boyd, the other by John McCall – include a coalition of residents and people who own businesses or property along the route.

An artist rendering of the Central and Cornell area of the proposed Albuquerque Rapid Transit system. (Source: City of Albuquerque)
An artist rendering of the Central and Cornell area of the proposed Albuquerque Rapid Transit system. (Source: City of Albuquerque)

Attorneys for the federal and city governments say the opponents’ claims of irreparable harm are “speculative” and that the project will benefit the economy on the whole by improving mass-transit in a critical corridor.

They say they followed the appropriate environmental process and that opponents are simply unhappy with the project – an argument they should take up politically, not in the courts.

Construction of Albuquerque Rapid Transit would create a nine-mile network of bus-only lanes and bus stations in the middle of Central Avenue. Work could begin next month unless Gonzales rules otherwise.

Paternoster was the first witness called by opponents. He expressed doubt that ART would draw new riders to the city bus system. Creating bus-only lanes, he said, will reduce traffic capacity and make it harder to get to his restaurant.

“I’ve never had one customer – not one – say, ‘Hey, I rode the bus here,’ ” Paternoster said.

City and federal attorneys suggested that Paternoster had no way of knowing how many customers take the bus to his restaurants. Furthermore, reliable and fast bus service on Central Avenue could make it easier, not harder, to get to local businesses, they said.

Gonzales didn’t reveal in the hearing which way he’s leaning. But he did ask whether the FTA had a duty to reconsider its decision to exempt the project from a more-detailed environmental analysis in light of the intense public debate that’s emerged over the past year.

He also asked about plans to do away with some left-hand turns along the route and whether that would lead to increased congestion.

The city of Albuquerque would build a new bus stop near Walter Street and Central Avenue, as shown in the rendering above, if final approval is granted for a new bus rapid transit project. (Source: City of Albuquerque)
The city of Albuquerque would build a new bus stop near Walter Street and Central Avenue, as shown in the rendering above, if final approval is granted for a new bus rapid transit project. (Source: City of Albuquerque)

Opponents of the project laughed derisively and clapped a few times during the hearing, prompting a warning from Gonzales. The audience was quiet after that.

Altogether, seven opponents and one witness for the defendants took the stand Wednesday.

The $119 million project would be funded mostly with federal money, and the city has authorization from the FTA to begin spending some of it to start construction. Congress, however, has not yet approved all of the funding necessary to carry out the project, though President Barack Obama’s administration has recommended it.

City officials say they are waiting for the court ruling before they proceed.

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