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After Years of Controversy, Paseo Extension to Open Next Week

By Andrea Schoellkopf
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    The 1.5-mile westward extension of Paseo del Norte— which spanned two decades of controversy— will open next week, city officials said.
    "They said this would never be," Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez said Thursday, atop a dirt-covered pedestrian overpass that overlooks the city.
    Although landscaping and the installation of artwork will continue through the month, Chávez said the $17 million road is essentially done and should be open Wednesday. The road's completion had been scheduled for the end of June.
    "I don't want to wait for the landscaping and the artwork when there's a perfectly good road that would give the West Side relief," Chávez said.
    The city built the four-lane road on the land bordered on both sides by the Petroglyph National Monument— Congress had set aside 8 acres for the road in 1998. The remaining mile from Kimmick to Universe was built as two lanes, and future developers of the adjoining land will be required to add the other two lanes.
Needed relief
    "Well, it's about time," Paradise Hills Civic Association President Larry Weaver said after hearing of the date for opening. Weaver's advocacy for the road began in the 1990s when opponents tried to change the alignment to Paradise Boulevard.
    The road will give east-west access from Tramway to Paseo del Volcan and the Double Eagle II airport, and will carry about 27,000 vehicles per day.
    Weaver expects the road to ease congestion on Paradise Boulevard, but said the full effect won't be felt until Unser— which is a route for Rio Rancho residents— is extended from Paradise Hills to the Boca Negra Canyon with access to Paseo.
    City officials expect the Unser extension to be completed within the next five years.
    Ventana Ranch— the 4,200-home development that sprouted up in the mid-'90s, with Paseo del Norte anticipated to quickly follow— is planning a party at Universe and Paseo del Norte to celebrate the opening of the road.
    "It really makes a big difference," said neighborhood association President Laura Horton. "People will be able to go to the grocery store, run errands, go to day care centers, and just to provide better access for emergency services."
    Still, she said, residents are already concerned about the two-lane portion of the road that stretches from the top of the escarpment to Universe— which is the portion developers must expand to four lanes.
    "The thing is, people don't realize how much work has gone into getting the road built," Horton said.
    Neighbors whose property abuts the new road were able to talk the city into a 60-inch berm, said Shenandoah neighborhood resident Angela Cook, though they wanted something higher to block the fumes, noise, headlights and accelerating vehicles.
    Cook— who said crews still need to clear out erosion in her backyard— said she's waiting for the road to open up before she forms an opinion.
    "We'll have to hear the traffic (first)," Cook said. "They put down that quiet asphalt. That may be good."
    For the next week, crews will be installing the quiet asphalt, testing it and striping the road, said John Castillo, the city's director of municipal development. Other mitigation efforts included building the road below grade.
    Artwork, which includes reliefs of animals, colored tiles, light panels and bird sculptures hanging from an overpass, will be installed over the next few weeks.
Years in the making
    The opening of the road ends years of debate and battle.
    The $14 million extension began construction in January 2006 after a state district judge shot down a lawsuit by opponents of the Paseo extension, saying that the city had met its burden to minimize harm to the area and that there had been no feasible alternatives to the road.
    The monument— created in 1990— includes 20,000 to 25,000 etchings on lava rocks made hundreds of years ago by Tiwa Pueblo inhabitants. Area tribes still consider the etchings sacred.
    In addition to filing the lawsuit, opponents, including environmental and Native American groups and several individuals who fought two city elections to approve funding for the road, petitioned the Legislature.
    Attempts to reach members of Sage Council and other parties to the lawsuit were unsuccessful Thursday.
    In court, the opponents had argued that a tunnel beneath the escarpment was a viable alternative that would not harm the petroglyphs. Nine boulders, which included five petroglyphs, had been quietly relocated out of the road's pathway in December 2005.
    The road had been delayed by a state historic preservation board, which wanted the city to show a better effort in working with the tribes.
    Jicarilla Apache representatives who visited the site said they believed one of the relocated rocks had been used as a touching stone for prayer because it had been smoothed from either touching or grinding.
    "It's been a long, hard battle," City Councilor Michael Cadigan said, recalling all the split votes the council has had over the years to approve the road or funding for the road. "The votes were always 5 to 4."
    Albuquerque voters approved $8.7 million for the extension in a 2004 bond election that had 60 percent support— reversing a 2003 electoral rejection.
    In 2004, Gov. Bill Richardson— who sought a Paseo "summit" in 1995 as a congressman for the state— attempted to get involved in the fray, finally releasing $3.3 million in legislative funding for the road that he had held up while trying to bring the various sides together.