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ART gets go-ahead — for now

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Mayor Richard Berry’s administration is free to start building the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project, following an order by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 10th Circuit on Friday lifted an injunction that had barred the city or its contractors from tearing up the roadway and beginning work.

The timing is good for the city. The Berry administration had told the court that it wanted to authorize the general contractor, Bradbury Stamm, to begin construction next week, though it’s possible work might not actually start until Sept. 3.

One more potential hurdle remains: Congress has not yet granted final approval for a $69 million grant that’s necessary to pay for the project.

But the city says it does have federal approval to begin spending money to get started, with reimbursement to come later.

Jim Maddox of Albuquerque steps off of an electric bus similar to the kind planned for the ABQ Rapid Transit project. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Jim Maddox of Albuquerque steps off of an electric bus similar to the kind planned for the ABQ Rapid Transit project. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

In a written statement, Berry said the project will promote redevelopment along a key city corridor.

“I am pleased that the Appeals Court has allowed construction to begin on this catalytic project,” the mayor said. “The design team and our community have worked diligently for years to ensure that ART is a world-class project that will bring opportunity for Central Avenue and the people of Albuquerque.”

The $119 million project would create a nine-mile network of bus-only lanes and bus stations in the middle of Central Avenue, between Louisiana and Coors.

Opponents argued in court that the Federal Transit Administration improperly exempted the project from a detailed environmental study and that the city misled the FTA in its application.

A federal district judge sided with the city and FTA about three weeks ago, and opponents immediately appealed to the 10th Circuit.

Friday’s order simply lifts a temporary injunction that prohibited the city from starting construction. The appeals court hasn’t yet ruled on the merits of the case itself.

It could still side with opponents and bring the project to a halt again.

But the decision issued Friday declared that opponents hadn’t met the burden necessary to stop the project while the appeal plays out.

Jean Bernstein, co-owner of Flying Star restaurants and a member of the coalition opposing the project, said the fight isn’t over, even if the city can begin construction.

“The 10th Circuit Court is still deliberating/considering (our) case,” she said in an email.

Mayor Berry has made the project a priority. He and other supporters say ART will provide fast, reliable mass-transit service in a crucial city corridor and encourage economic revitalization along what was once Route 66.

Central Avenue is filled with major employers and other important destinations, such as the University of New Mexico, they say.

As for the legal argument, the city and FTA contend they have followed the appropriate environmental laws. Almost all of the construction work, for example, will take place within the sidewalk-to-sidewalk boundaries of Central Avenue.

The new bus lanes would generally occupy 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.

Opponents say the project will damage the car-friendly character of the old Route 66 and choke traffic, steering drivers – and potential customers – away from businesses and restaurants.

Berry and a bipartisan majority of city councilors support the project. It won approval on a 7-2 council vote earlier this year, with councilors Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña in opposition.