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Electric buses, such as this one, would be used for the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project

Electric buses, such as this one, would be used for the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project. A federal judge on Friday denied a motion for a preliminary injunction that would have prevented the city from starting construction on the project. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A federal judge on Friday refused to order a halt to Albuquerque’s plan to build a bus-rapid-transit system down the middle of Central Avenue.

In a late-night decision, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales denied a motion for a preliminary injunction that would have prevented Mayor Richard Berry’s administration from starting construction on the $119 million project.

Work could begin as early as Wednesday, city attorneys told the judge.

Gonzales said he wasn’t convinced that it’s in the public’s interest to stop the project – called Albuquerque Rapid Transit – and he noted that the mayor and a City Council majority favor the project.

“Completing the ART project on time will address existing safety concerns sooner and save the public money due to construction delays,” he said in a 14-page opinion.

The judge expressed mixed personal feelings about the project, but he said it was his job to apply the law objectively, regardless of the political debate.

Granting a preliminary injunction, he said, requires meeting strict legal standards.

“If or when the ART project is constructed and put into operation, there may be a day when I will utilize it and fully realize everything the system now is envisioned to be: a speedy, convenient, environmentally smart transportation system that, in addition, spurs necessary economic development into an area of Albuquerque that needs it,” Gonzales wrote.

“Today, however, and from a personal standpoint,” he continued, “I cannot be certain that I buy in. It means changes to an area of Albuquerque that I may not be ready to accept. But, to resolve this matter, I must set aside my personal opinion and employ the correct legal standards.”

Mayor Berry, a Republican, has made construction of ART a priority of his administration.

“I’m happy for our city,” he told reporters at City Hall.

The project would create a nine-mile network of bus-only lanes and bus stations in the middle of Central Avenue, from roughly Louisiana to Coors. The system could be in operation late next year if all goes well.

Berry pledged late Friday to continue listening to opponents and skeptics, with the hope of assuaging their concerns.

“We want this to be successful for everybody,” he said.

To win an injunction, opponents had to show they were likely to succeed on the merits of their case – that the Federal Transit Administration improperly exempted ART from the requirement for a detailed environmental analysis. They also had to show that allowing the project to move forward would create irreparable harm and that stopping it now was in the public’s interest.

Gonzales said the law required him to give deference to the FTA’s technical expertise, a tough standard for opponents to overcome and win their case.

Gonzales heard closing arguments Friday and thanked the attorneys involved for their professionalism during a grueling hearing that began Wednesday morning and stretched into the evening that night and the next one. He issued his ruling in writing about 8 p.m. Friday.

City executives argued that any delay – whether because of a court order or something else – would push up the cost of the project. But they never said they’d abandon it altogether if a preliminary injunction were to stop them from starting working immediately.

Over the past three days, opponents of Albuquerque Rapid Transit offered emotional testimony, calling the project a potential disaster for local businesses and a “cultural catastrophe” that would damage the car-friendly charm of the road that was once Route 66.

Their attorneys argued that the Federal Transit Administration improperly granted the project an exemption from rules that would normally require a detailed environmental assessment or study. They also accused the city of misleading the FTA about the potential impact to the environment and neighborhoods along Central Avenue – the longest urban, intact stretch of the old Route 66.

Attorneys for the city and Federal Transit Administration, meanwhile, said the project met the requirements for an exemption from further study – something known as a “categorical exclusion.” The decision was sound, they said, because the construction needed to carry out Albuquerque Rapid Transit will occur almost entirely within the sidewalk-to-sidewalk boundaries of Central Avenue, or the public right of way.

City officials also testified that they changed the design of the project to address neighborhood concerns about traffic and consulted with state officials on historic preservation.

The new ART buses would generally move down the center of Central in what is now the median. To make room, there will be one lane fewer for general traffic in each direction throughout much of the corridor.

Federal funding would pay for most of the construction, though Congress has not yet approved all of the money. President Barack Obama’s administration has recommended funding, however.

Memorandum Opinion and Order by Albuquerque Journal on Scribd

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