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Was Public Shut Out of ART?

Was Public Shut Out of ART?

City officials consistently told ART opponents that the effort was a done deal, that their opposition to it, or efforts to change it, were unwelcome.

Nob Hill Merchants Responded Late in the Process

Record shows time to speak up was years ago

BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI

By the time opposition to Mayor Richard Berry’s Albuquerque Rapid Transit project crystallized and fully mobilized last summer, it was almost too late.

The city was on the verge of, or already had, submitted its $69 million funding proposal for ART to the Federal Transit Administration. And, the FTA had already granted the city an exemption from having to do an environmental assessment of the project’s impact on Central Avenue and its surrounding neighborhoods.

City officials consistently told ART opponents that the effort was a done deal, that their opposition to it, or efforts to change it, were unwelcome. The bureaucratic machinery was already grinding away.

The recent federal court hearing in which opponents sought an injunction against ART bore that out. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales said he could rule only on what was contained in the FTA’s administrative record regarding ART – a record that had been assembled long before opponents organized to add their voices to the record.

So what happened?

Were people, especially Central Avenue business owners – generally politically and socially involved people – not paying attention to a process that had begun in 2009?

Was there nothing for them to pay attention to, meaning did the news media do its job of thoroughly informing the community about Berry’s plans, and did City Hall do a diligent job of getting word out about the project that blew up in its face?

Checking a box?

Did the city do enough to publicize the process and engage as many people as possible – in the window of time when their voices could have affected the project – or did the city do only what was minimally required in order to be able to check off a box on its FTA funding application?

Based on the available record, those are questions whose answers are subject to opinion and interpretation. The city’s ART project website says it had 17 public meetings with various neighborhood and other organizations between 2012 and 2015.

It also held a series of six, often raucous, meetings earlier this year. The city also said it notified Central Avenue business owners with doorknob hangers and fliers about ART and the planning process.

ART opponents say they didn’t hear about ART until early to mid-2015. They call the city’s public outreach efforts a sham and designed to satisfy an FTA requirement that they do some sort of public outreach.

So how many people attended those early public meetings, and what did they say?

We don’t know, because, apparently, no records were kept of them.

Joan Griffin, president of the public relations firm that does public relations work for ART, told ABQ Free Press that no minutes were kept of the meetings because “ART was a guest at most” and was just presenting information. Such presentations logically would have occurred at meetings of the transit arm of the Mid-Region Council of Governments, which appeared for a time during ART’s early days to have conducted parallel hearing tracks with the city on various iterations of the ART idea before the city took over exclusive control of the project.

Rick De Reyes said ABQ Ride’s public outreach on ART began in November 2012. He said he no meeting minutes or sign-in sheets of that series of meetings were kept, but he invited the newspaper to file an Inspection of Public Records Act request in the event such records exist.

Stealth project

The Albuquerque Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, published a total of seven articles about ART between May 2009 and August 2015. Not one of them mentioned an upcoming public meeting on ART – or BRT for Bus Rapid Transit, as it was initially called. Only two of the articles – in April and June 2015 – offered details about the project.

When Did You Hear of ART?

The public record on the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project shows that by the time Nob Hill merchants snapped to the impact of ART on their businesses, the project was already well on its way to federal funding.

To see the timeline, click here.

ART opponent Doug Peterson, a lawyer and former chair of the city’s Environmental Planning Commission, said he didn’t hear about ART until February 2015 when a friend told him about it. Peterson served on the EPC from 2008 to 2013, and he was chair of the board for two years.

“You would think that if the city started planning this [ART] in 2011, that the Environmental Planning Commission would have heard of it,” Peterson said. “I believe the city did just enough so they could later say that they reached out, while knowing it [the outreach effort] would not be effective.”

Central Avenue business owner Steve Schroeder first learned about ART in the middle of June 2015 “after reading about it somewhere.” On June 6, 2015, the Journal published a lengthy article under the headline “Envisioning ART.”

By then, the public was standing on chairs and shouting down speakers at the series of City Hall-organized ART meetings. The question now is whether all that noise and commotion fell on deaf ears.

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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  • Jordan
    August 10, 2016, 4:17 pm

    I heard about ART in the Daily Lobo in 2011 and got involved as soon as i heard, writing letters in support of the project from the moment the first plans were released long ago as well as my own questions and concerns, which were almost always responded to or acknowledged. I also responded to requests for comments when the plan was first asking for commentary around 2012 and 2013. I also wrote both Pete Dinelli and Mayor Berry about their plans for BRT during the mayoral election. I received a response from Mayor Berry’s campaign, and never heard back from Mr. Dinelli’s campaign. There’s no excuse for these business owners AT ALL. This was an issue in a mayoral election where the proponent for the project won in a landslide, it was an issue with publicized meetings since before that and after that. It was featured on the Daily Lobo as well as the Alibi and the Journal, which are distributed at many of the businesses that now say they did not hear about it. The city also left door knockers on doors for comments and I even heard radio announcements on both english and spanish radio! The city was more than transparent. It’s not the city’s fault that these businesses decided to shrug off their civic responsibilities.

    REPLY
    • Gregory Dugay@Jordan
      August 15, 2016, 2:26 pm

      Jordan,
      You make many good points. As a mass transit enthusiast myself I wish that the current plans for ART were worth supporting but after looking into it, it just doesn’t make sense unless I put myself in the shoes of an ambitious crony capitalist. In response to your points I have two questions: 1) when were these oft referred to door knockers distributed to local businesses? Before or after the plans were finalized?
      2) Your assertion that business owners had no excuse because they could have read about it in one of the papers implies that business owners have enough time on their hands to read paper every day!
      Furthermore, according to Dennis Domrzalski none of the articles printed in the paper had any details about the project so I’m not sure what comments you submitted based on those articles, but I can’t imagine that they could have been very substantive.
      Finally, according to Joan Griffin, president of the public relations firm that hosted the pre-2015 meetings, no records were kept of the meetings so that doesn’t sound like they actually considered community input at all!
      So my questions for you Jordan are:
      1) Are you suggesting that Dennis is lying about the pre-2015 newspaper articles and that they actually did spell out the specifics of the project which could have inspired substantive community feedback? Or do you believe him to be incompetent?
      2) Are you suggesting that Joan Griffin is lying and that really the city planning dept did track citizen feedback during the pre-2015 meetings? That doesn’t seem likely considering that Joan was paid to put a positive spin on the project.
      3) It is encouraging to hear that you received feedback from the Berry administration, though I’m left wondering what the content of your letters was? I’m curious because anyone that I’ve heard from who was critical of the project did not feel heard when they expressed their concerns.

      REPLY
    • Don C@Jordan
      August 15, 2016, 11:36 pm

      Could you please cite the dates and issues from the Alibi, Albuquerque Journal and the Daily Lobo.
      Most people in Albuquerque don’t read either the Lobo or the Alibi.

      REPLY
  • Richard Meadows
    August 13, 2016, 12:58 pm

    The City has been discussing a high capacity transit project on Central Avenue for at least 20 years. The City considered light rail and a modern street car over 10 years ago (voted down by City Council). Follow-up studies showed BRT as the next best feasible option for consideration. Doug Peterson evidently didn’t bother to read planning documents submitted to the EPC during his tenure including the draft West 66 Sector Development Plan (which he also actively opposed) in 2012. The plan had numerous references to the proposed bus rapid transit project to run along West Central Avenue. Many of the opponents must have amnesia because the city held numerous meetings with neighborhood groups at least a year before the FTA application. The city made several major changes to the project based on neighborhood feedback in attempt to balance the needs of various modes within a constricted right-of-way. Soon after business leaders brought in Koch-funded national anti-transit speakers to stir up hysteria against the project. City officials were shouted down at public meetings earlier this year as they tried to explain the merits of the project. If Albuquerque continues to decline economically in coming years, residents, business owners, and the media only have themselves to blame.

    REPLY
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