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$100 Million BRT for ABQ?

$100 Million BRT for ABQ?

The BRT would basically run train-like, rubber-wheeled buses down the two middle lanes of Central from Louisiana on the east to Coors on the west.

ABQ Rapid RideIt’s Mayor Richard Berry’s $100 million gamble – a bet he wants to make with taxpayers’ money to upgrade a mode of transportation that almost no one uses.

It’s called Bus Rapid Transit, and Berry wants to spend $10 million a mile to carve out dedicated bus lanes and bus stations, color-splashed, tent-like awnings, plus 8, 50-passenger buses that sort of look like trains along a 10-mile-long stretch of Central Avenue.

To its supporters, BRT will revive Albuquerque’s stagnant, federally dependent economy, lead to redevelopment along Central, and transform Albuquerque into a hip, happening city that attracts businesses and millennials.

To its critics, Berry’s plan is a waste of money that will destroy small businesses along Central, make the already traffic-congested street more so, and do nothing to build a thriving, private-sector economy while replacing an existing system – Rapid Ride – that works perfectly well.

One of the proposal’s critics said it’s a smoke-and-mirrors attempt by Berry to draw attention away from his lack of a track record in economic development in his six-and-a-half years in office.
Support of the proposal appears to be lukewarm. Several city councilors who have bought into the idea said they are concerned about its cost and its potential to drive small businesses away from Central.

How we get to work

Workers 16 and over     311,764

Car, truck, van – solo   247,898   79.5 percent
Carpooled,                      29,838     9.6 percent
Public transp.                5,018        1.6 percent
Walked                           6,393        2 percent
Other means                 10,272      3.3 percent
Worked at home          12,345      4 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Commuting Habits in the First Congressional District

Berry is betting on a form of transit that almost no one uses. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 1.6 percent of people over the age of 16 in the First Congressional District now use public transportation to get to their jobs. Seventy-nine percent take cars or trucks to work.

Berry’s idea involves about $20 million in local tax money and $80 million in federal money and has yet to be approved by the Federal Transportation Administration. The BRT would basically run train-like, rubber-wheeled buses down the two middle lanes of Central from Louisiana on the east to Coors on the west.

The street’s medians would be turned into bus stations every mile or so, and those two center lanes would be for buses only, meaning that for most of that stretch, auto traffic would be reduced to one lane in each direction. The plan also calls for widening sidewalks and improving landscaping along the 10-mile stretch.

The BRT buses themselves would run from Tramway on the east to Atrisco on the west, but it’s that 10-mile length of dedicated bus lanes and stations in the middle of the street that has many business owners along the route fuming. The dedicated lanes will reduce auto traffic, eliminate many left-hand-turn lanes which provide access to side streets and their businesses, and reduce or eliminate parking on Central, critics argue.

Supporters say it will make Central more pedestrian-friendly and be a magnet for people who don’t want to use cars to get around. It will also spur economic development along the route and in Downtown Albuquerque, they say.

“My one and only concern is that we protect accessibility to businesses and make sure it is very smooth and efficient while maintaining, wherever possible, on-street parking,” said City Councilor Isaac Benton, who concedes he has concerns the project will interrupt the spate of recent redevelopment projects along Central between Downtown and Old Town.
Real estate broker Todd Clarke of New Mexico Apartment Advisors, Inc., said he believes BRT will attract millennials to the area.

“You need a transit system that really appeals to white-collar workers; the Central bus is not exactly a white-collar crowd,” Clarke said. “What we have learned with the Cleveland BRT is that you need to have something that feels more like a train.”

City Councilor Rey Garduño said Central is a commercial, and not an automobile, corridor, and that if motorists want better traffic flow they should drive other east-west streets.
“Some people are concerned about vehicular traffic, but Central was never built for that reason. We have Gibson, Menaul and Lomas [for people who want to drive 35 mph or faster],” Garduño said.

A boondoggle?

Among the BRT’s detractors, none is as vocal as Greg Payne, a former city councilor who served as the city’s transit director from 2005 through 2009. “It’s an absolute boondoggle and a rip-off of taxpayer money,” Payne said.

“I think most people would rather see us focus on getting the economy back on track, and getting the Albuquerque Police Department back on track,” Payne said.
Payne served as transit director under then-Mayor Marty Chavez. When Berry ran against Chavez in 2009, Berry opposed Chavez’s plans to build a light rail system in the city. BRT isn’t far away from light rail, and has a similar price tag, Payne said.

“It’s the political hypocrisy of R.J. Berry demonizing light rail and modern streetcars and turning around with a proposal that is every bit as expensive and less effective,” Payne said. He added that Berry’s proposal is like “Rapid Ride on crack.”

Doug Peterson is the principal of Peterson Properties in Albuquerque. The firm owns 15 properties on Central from 102nd Street on the West Side to San Pedro in the mid-Heights. He opposes the BRT on grounds it will eliminate the ability of cars to make left-hand turns and reduce access to as many as 140 properties along the route.

“This design drastically reduces the number of customers visiting the affected properties, as customers will likely avoid driving on Central altogether or, if they do drive on Central, they will simply choose a different business to satisfy their need as opposed to taking a ridiculously circuitous route,” said Peterson, who served for six years on the Albuquerque Environmental Planning Commission.

“The city has sparse credibility when it comes to telling us that a major initiative will increase private development,” he said. “I’ve read every sector plan, corridor plan and overlay zone the city’s created. All but a handful have failed to benefit the areas they cover, and nearly everyone stated that it would spur development.

“To verify that, spend some time on the city’s website reading such duds as the East Gateway Sector Development Plan, the North Fourth Street Rank III Corridor Plan, or the South Yale Sector Development Plan and reflect upon the empty promises in their opening pages.”

Randal O’Toole is a transportation expert with the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank. He said Berry’s BRT proposal is a mistake for several reasons – one of them being the city’s suburban, spread-out nature.

“Transit will never be important in Albuquerque because Albuquerque jobs and residences are too spread out,” O’Toole said. “Cities with high transit usage, such as New York and Chicago, have hundreds of thousands of Downtown jobs. But only about 44,000 jobs are located in Downtown Albuquerque and the rest are so finely distributed that transit is not a viable option for most people.”

Duplicative?

The question that many ask is why is BRT needed along Central when the city’s Rapid Ride buses do the same thing – provide an express-like service with fewer stops and increased frequency than regular buses.

The three Rapid Ride routes, two of which run mostly on Central, leave every 11 to 15 minutes and stop about every mile or so at dedicated stations. They now account for 3.4 million boardings a year or 50 percent of all the bus boardings on Central, according to ABQ Ride figures.

BRT buses would be about the same size as the articulated, 60-foot-long Rapid Ride buses, but they would run every seven-and-a-half minutes, said ABQ Ride spokesman Rick DeReyes.

“More buses will not revitalize Central. It’s already the one area in town that has the highest level of bus service,” Payne said. “If Central was going to be revitalized, it would have happened with Rapid Ride.”

Councilors Garduño and Benton argue that BRT, with its dedicated lanes and pre-boarding ticket purchases, will shave several minutes off the run times and get riders to their destinations along Central more quickly. Payne isn’t sure why Berry decided to pursue BRT, especially when he campaigned against mass transit in 2009.

“He [Berry] has been here for seven years and we’ve had dwindling population, a sinking economy and the worst police department in the nation for excessive-force lawsuits,” Payne said. “Having failed in every other area, he feels like he needs to fail in this one.”

— Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.
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