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Last-minute appeal puts ART on hold

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Don’t touch those shovels just yet.

A federal appeals court Monday issued a temporary order barring Mayor Richard Berry’s administration from beginning work on Albuquerque Rapid Transit, just days ahead of the planned start date.

And at City Hall, the rapid transit project faces new hurdles – including a proposal to put it before voters in the Nov. 8 election.

The topsy-turvy Monday came after Berry won a legal victory late Friday night when U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales refused to order a halt to the project. He denied the opponents’ request for a preliminary injunction to prevent construction.

But John Boyd, an attorney for a coalition of business and property owners opposing ART, filed an appeal with the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which responded Monday by issuing its own temporary injunction and ordering both sides to submit their arguments by 4 p.m. today.

The order also directs the city to inform the court of any construction planned before Aug. 10.

City attorneys had said last week that work could begin as early as Wednesday of this week.

The Berry administration signed a contract Monday morning with general contractor Bradbury Stamm for surveying, putting up temporary traffic signs and signals, noise monitoring and other work needed to prepare for construction.

City Attorney Jessica Hernandez said the pre-construction work is now on hold, pending the court decision.

Each day of delay exposes the city to liability, she said, so the city is hopeful the appeals court will allow the early work to continue. Irreversible construction isn’t expected to begin for at least another three weeks, she said.

The city, in any case, hopes to resolve the appeal “in a matter of days,” Hernandez said.

“It’s not unexpected that the plaintiffs would file a motion like this,” she said.

Construction of Albuquerque Rapid Transit would create a nine-mile network of bus-only lanes and bus stations in the middle of Central Avenue.

The $119 million project would be funded mostly by the federal government.

Jean Bernstein, co-owner of Flying Star restaurants and a member of the coalition fighting ART, said the plaintiffs are pleased the appeals court agreed to immediately consider the appeal and order a stop to construction.

They believe they have a good case that the city and Federal Transit Administration failed to properly consider the project’s potential damage to historic neighborhoods and the character of old Route 66, she said.

Central Avenue is the longest urban stretch of what was once Route 66 still intact.

An election?

At City Hall, meanwhile, City Councilor Diane Gibson, whose district covers a chunk of the Northeast Heights between Lomas and Montgomery, said she would introduce a proposal Monday night that aims to put the project on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Councilor Ken Sanchez, who represents much of the West Side, is also proposing to pause construction until the city administration works with local business owners on how to improve access to their property.

Final action on those bills, however, could come well after construction on the project starts.

The council legislation is scheduled to be referred to a committee, meaning it wouldn’t come back for final action until later this month or in September.

Both bills also face this hurdle: The council voted 7-2 to support the project just four months ago, with Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña in dissent.

Sanchez and Gibson, then, have work to do to muster a majority to support their bills.

They both say they support Albuquerque Rapid Transit, but want more public discussion.

Sanchez said he expects to amend his bill so it doesn’t call for a moratorium on construction. Instead, he simply wants the city to meet with business owners and others to come up with strategies to offer more left-hand turns in the corridor, allowing cars to turn from Central Avenue into local businesses.

Under the current design, construction of ART would require fewer left turns because the new buses would run in dedicated lanes in place of the median.

“What I’m trying to do is not stop the project, but to work with the community and get this done right,” Sanchez said.

As for Gibson’s bill, it’s not a sure thing that the Nov. 8 ballot will have room to include a question on Albuquerque Rapid Transit or that Bernalillo County commissioners will agree to add it.

There’s also the possibility that the County Commission will decide what to place on the ballot before the council even acts on her bill.

Gibson said she supports the project, but believes the city shouldn’t start work until voters weigh in.

“I think we need to allow them to have a voice in it,” she said.