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City Backing Off on Streetcar Plan

By Jim Ludwick
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Mayor Martin Chávez and City Council President Martin Heinrich said Saturday they will seek to repeal tax changes that would have financed a streetcar project.
    In separate interviews with the Journal, Chávez and Heinrich said they are backing away from the streetcar project for the time being.
    Each called for a comprehensive study of local transportation needs before the city decides whether to develop a streetcar system.
    Chávez said it "makes no sense" to keep the tax changes in place when there is no consensus on the City Council about proceeding with streetcars.
    "I'm asking the council to repeal the tax (changes)," Chávez said.
    "It is clear that the council is split in its opinion. It makes no sense to tax people when there is no object for the tax. ... We should step back and look at all transit options."
    Heinrich said councilors will discuss the issue at their meeting Monday, but "my gut feeling is that we should repeal what we have done and start from scratch."
    The council approved a plan last month for launching development of a streetcar rail line by extending the life of the city's transportation tax until 2020.
    It caused an uproar because the council decided to take the action without putting the issue on an election ballot. The quarter-cent gross-receipts tax had been created in 1999 with the approval of voters, who had been told it would expire three years from now.
    The recently approved legislation would have changed the way the tax proceeds are used— reducing the percentage going to road projects and other purposes, so there would be money for the streetcar system. The changes are not scheduled take effect until July, so there would be time to rescind the legislation before it has any bearing on the use of the tax.
    Chávez said he would establish a task force to look at all aspects of transportation: roads, bicycles, air travel, rail, the bus system and the potential for streetcars. He said he will ask Vern Raburn, who heads Eclipse Aviation, to help lead the effort.
    It could take a year to complete the work, Chávez said.
    Heinrich said that a well-designed streetcar system could be important to Albuquerque but that it should be considered in the context of a study of all transportation needs. He said there should be plenty of opportunity for public comment.
    Councilor Isaac Benton, who had joined Heinrich as a co-sponsor of the streetcar legislation, said the issue of transportation is too important for hasty action.
    "We need to look comprehensively at the transportation system and have a public dialogue," Benton said.
    He said he's inclined to repeal the transportation tax legislation.
    The turnaround was praised Saturday by councilors who had opposed extending the transportation tax and raised questions about streetcars.
    Councilor Don Harris said it seems reasonable to repeal the changes and start over.
    "It sounds like a good idea. Let's do it right," he said.
    Harris has already introduced legislation calling for a study of the cost and benefits of a streetcar system. It asks for an independent analysis of price estimates, city-budget ramifications, results of streetcar systems in other cities, potential economic impacts and other issues.
    Councilor Michael Cadigan said it's "probably a good idea to just clear the decks... . It's probably a good policy— slow down on the whole thing."
    He said the transportation system "should be looked at across the board."
    Councilor Brad Winter could not be reached Saturday afternoon, but he has adamantly opposed extending the transportation tax without putting the issue on a ballot.