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Catalyst for Sprawl or Miracle Solution? Opinions Differ on Paseo Del Norte as It Reaches Its 20th Anniversary

By Rory McClannahan
Journal Staff Writer
    It's the bridge they said wasn't needed. That was in 1983. Today, the Paseo del Norte bridge and corridor from the North Valley to the West Side carries more than 85,000 vehicles a day— and often sports gridlock at rush hour.
    Today also marks 20 years since Paseo del Norte opened for travel.
    "We thought it was something that had to be done," said state Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, who was head of the State Highway Department at the time. "It united the city east and west."
    Bridge opponents at the time argued that estimates of high traffic volumes were inflated, Larrañaga said. So the Highway Department commissioned two separate studies to show there was a need for Paseo del Norte.
    "Nobody would believe what we were saying was going to happen," he said. "As it turned out, our estimates were too conservative."
    The bridge brought quicker growth to the West Side north of Interstate 40, which grew from about 30,000 people in 1980 to more than 85,000 in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
    Larrañaga said that growth was expected, but one of the goals of Paseo del Norte was to assure that growth was linked closely to Albuquerque.
    Whether that was a good thing is debatable.
    To some, Paseo del Norte represents a lost opportunity to make Albuquerque a true "green" city. Paseo started the city and state on a path away from ways other than cars to move people around.
    "It's a manifestation of the city's attitude of building its way out of traffic congestion," said Gabriel Nims, executive director of 1,000 Friends of New Mexico.
    To former Gov. Toney Anaya, whose term spanned the planning and construction of the bridge and road, Paseo del Norte was important for economic development not only on the West Side, but for New Mexico.
    "There had been a lot of debate for years about getting a crossing built, but no action," Anaya said. "It boiled down that we needed to get it done."
Longtime talk
    Talk of building a North Valley river crossing started in earnest in 1964 when the West Side Association, a group of business owners and county officials, submitted a proposal to the city for a bridge at Montaño. For nearly two decades, placing two bridges in the North Valley was debated— one at Montaño and one at El Pueblo. The El Pueblo alignment was chosen in 1980 and rechristened Paseo del Norte, but finding money and the political will to do it was more difficult.
    The bridge project got a boost from Intel Corp. in 1983. The silicon chipmaker wanted to expand its plant at Rio Rancho but needed three things— water, workers and improved roads. The first two were easy, Larrañaga said. The third posed a political problem that Anaya— who was just starting his term as governor— was willing to take on.
    Anaya made a commitment to the bridge during a meeting with Intel officials.
    "We were all in that meeting," Larrañaga said. "I didn't say anything, but the governor listened, then said, 'We'll get it done, right, Larry?' I had to say yes, but I didn't know how we were going to do it."
    The first step was to find the money. At the time, the state was battling huge budget deficits, Anaya said. The Legislature would have been unwilling to fund the whole project, he said, so an alternative had to be found.
    "It was a hot political issue. I don't know if I could have gotten it through or not. So we chose not to go to the Legislature," Anaya said.
    The Legislature did chip in some money— about $6 million— but that wasn't enough to complete the project.
    The Highway Department was able to sell bonds to raise about $34 million. The total cost of building the bridge and Paseo del Norte from Coors to Second Street was $46 million. The city kicked in about $4 million and the county contributed $2 million.
    Even though Anaya raised the money to build the crossing, it still met with opposition.
    The village of Los Ranchos and North Valley residents filed four lawsuits in 1984 to stop its construction, which Larrañaga said could have delayed the bridge for more than a decade.
    It was House Speaker Raymond Sanchez, who was leading a fight against the bridge, who found a compromise.
    "There was no way he was going to let a bridge be built through the North Valley," Larrañaga said. "If we wanted it built, we had to deal with him."
    Sanchez only agreed to the bridge with several concessions, Larrañaga said.
    The first was that the state hand off to the city the effort to build a bridge at Montaño.
    Other compromises included bridges over Paseo del Norte at Rio Grande Boulevard and Fourth Street. The Paseo del Norte roadbed was lowered, and dirt berms would be placed to mitigate traffic noise.
    The final concession was that no large truck traffic would be allowed on the road, Larrañaga said.
    Sanchez did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
    Construction on the bridge and road started in August 1986 by Twin Mountain Rock Co. of Des Moines, N.M.
Traffic growth
    In the planning stages, the city, state and the then-Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments did a study to predict what traffic might look like on the metro area's bridges.
    The prediction for Paseo del Norte was that by 2010, the road would have 59,000 daily vehicle trips. It only took about 10 years— in 1997— to reach that level.
    In 2006, the daily vehicle trips across the bridge had reached 85,400. That has increased pressure on the Interstate 25/Paseo del Norte interchange.
    The state Department of Transportation is in the process of planning a renovation of the interchange. That could cost as much as $353 million. The department is aiming for a start date in 2010, but little funding is currently available.
Transportation plan
    Paseo del Norte is not the only traffic hot spot in the metro area, which led the Mid-Region Council of Governments to develop and adopt the 2030 Transportation Plan. MRCOG is given the authority for transportation planning in conjunction with its member governments.
    The 2030 plan calls for increasing road capacity as well as developing alternatives to reducing traffic, such as carpooling and mass transit.
    Larry Abraham, chairman of the Metro Transportation Board and the mayor of Los Ranchos, said the 2030 plan is a good guideline for the metro area's transportation development.
    Nowhere in the plan, however, is a scheme to build another bridge.
    "There just isn't a logical place to put another river crossing," Abraham said.
    In 1997, the city built the Montaño Bridge, which also runs through the village of Los Ranchos.
    Adding a bridge between Alameda and U.S. 550 in Bernalillo would prove difficult. Any project would have to have approval from the village of Corrales or Sandia Pueblo.
    Abraham said there is also no political willpower to add more bridges.
    "Los Ranchos has two bridges, and I know that we will not take another," Abraham said. "The 2030 plan looks more at developing north-south routes to get commuters to Interstate 40."
    Nims of 1,000 Friends of New Mexico sees it differently.
    Although the organization participated in the development of the plan, he said he finds it wanting. The plan continues to support building or expanding roads, but only pays lip service to alternatives such as mass transit and light rail.
    "Now we have a plan that caters to what hasn't worked in the past," Nims said. "Albuquerque will never be a 'green' city until its transportation reflects a different attitude."
Times change
    Paseo del Norte was unique for several reasons, Larrañaga said. Not only was it planned and built within four years, it was relatively inexpensive.
    Times have changed, though. There no longer is the political expediency to build a road across the river, he said. In addition, the opposition to something like that would be great.
    1,425 Feet

    Length of the bridge
    $46 Million

    Cost of building Paseo del Norte from Coors to Second Street including $6.14 million for the bridge alone in 1987

    Number of daily trips on Paseo del Norte between Coors and Second Street in 1988

    Number of daily trips on Paseo del Norte between Coors and Second Street in 2006
    37 Minutes

    Current commute time from Paradise Hills to Downtown using Paseo del Norte