'There were a lot of people voicing opposition, and they [transit officials] seemed shocked' - Mary Bachman, who attended an early ART meeting
Records show opposition was voiced as early as 2012
BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI
Mary Bachman remembers the reaction of city transit officials when she and others expressed opposition to Mayor Richard Berry’s Albuquerque Rapid Transit Project at a public meeting the city had called in 2012 purportedly to get public input on ART.
“There were a lot of people voicing opposition, and they [transit officials] seemed shocked. They couldn’t understand why we weren’t on board,” Bachman said. “They didn’t seem to want to listen to the opinions, even back then.”
The meeting that Bachman attended was held on Nov. 27, 2012. It was the second of six public meetings that transit officials held on ART that year. ABQ Free Press talked to eight people who attended that meeting. Most of them said the same thing: The city had made up its mind that ART would go on a dedicated lane down the middle of Central Avenue and that the meeting was held to tell people what was going to happen, not to get their input.
Fred Patten, now 80 years old, said he went to the Nov. 27 meeting in an attempt to “get connected with the activities that were going on and to try to influence the direction we were going in.” But Patten quickly became disillusioned with ART and with city officials that day. After that meeting, he never attended another ART function.
“I discovered that much of that stuff is decided behind closed doors and that public meetings are just a show of tolerance by the people who have already made the decisions on what they are going to do,” Patten said. “And the transit thing is a perfect example.”
Eileen Jensen, now 51, attended the meeting and remembered that city officials pitched ART, not necessarily as a project that would improve the bus system throughout the city but as something that would rejuvenate Central along its nine-mile route.
“They mostly showed what it [bus rapid transit] was like in other cities and how it had rejuvenated those areas,” Jensen said. She said the city’s drawings showed ART buses running down the middle of Central on dedicated lanes. “But I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why isn’t this going down Menaul or Lomas?’”
A 40-year-old woman who lives and works in the UNM area, and who asked not to be identified, attended the meeting and said she got no real answers when she asked city officials why they didn’t go along with a plan previously proposed by the Mid-Region Council of Governments. That plan would have run ART along University Boulevard between Menaul and the airport. She said the city presented ART as running down the middle of Central on dedicated lanes.
“People pointed out that University was better, but it seemed they were not going to change their plans,” the woman said. “It was said over and over that Central was not the best route, and they refused to listen.”
Donna Stepanovic, who is legally blind, attended the November 2012 meeting and said she was concerned when she learned that ART buses would run down the middle of Central. “When I found out they were going to run it down the middle of the street, I thought that we are always going to have to cross the street to get a bus.”
The recollections of those who attended the early meetings is confirmed by the contents of an email by an ABQ Ride official. The transit department’s marketing director, Vanessa Baca, emailed her colleagues on Oct. 29, 2014, to report on a public meeting on what was then called the Bus Rapid Transit project the night before. “FYI that there are several comments now,” Baca’s email said. “The majority don’t seem to favor BRT.”
ART opponents, especially business owners along Central, say they didn’t hear about the project until the middle of 2015 and only after the city had sent its proposal for $69 million in federal grant money for ART to the Federal Transit Administration. They’ve claimed the city did a poor job of informing the public early on in the planning process and that the city did only the minimal amount of outreach that was necessary to secure FTA funding.
City records show that the transit department held six public meetings each year on ART in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In 2013 and 2014, the city placed ads about each meeting in the Albuquerque Journal, the Daily Lobo, the Alibi, and the CNM Chronicle.
But, for whatever reason, those meetings were sparsely attended. Using the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, ABQ Free Press obtained the sign-in sheets for five of the meetings in 2012. They show that the total attendance for all five meetings was 106 people. A total of 93 people attended six meetings in 2013. Six meetings in 2014 drew a total of 112 people, for an average of less than 20 per meeting.
In all, the city’s 17 meetings on ART drew 311 attendees over three years. Despite the opposition unequivocally voiced in those meetings, the city’s FTA grant application represented that there was no significant controversy generated by the idea of running ART down the middle of historic Route 66. That apparent discrepancy is at the heart of a lawsuit by ART opponents.
In early 2016 – well after the city had submitted its grant application to the FTA and after the project’s design couldn’t really be altered – yet another series of meetings drew nearly 100 people each. Those meetings turned into raucous spectacles in which ART opponents angrily shouted down city officials.
A spokesperson for Mayor Richard Berry did not respond to an email request for comment for this article.
ART opponent Jean Bernstein said that in many ways the early ART meetings had no value because the city presented only conceptual drawings to the public, not actual plans. It wasn’t until Nob Hill business owners saw ART plans that they became angry and started mobilizing, Bernstein said.
“The actual plans were 15 percent completed around the first part of 2015, and it wasn’t until about November of 2015 that the plans were 75 percent complete,” Bernstein said. “So the public never got to see any of the actual plans. I don’t think the engagement was true engagement. I think it was perfunctory engagement. They met the bare minimum requirement.”
Doug Peterson, an ART opponent who owns property along Central, said he was never notified of the ART meetings in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Now that construction has started, he has been getting a steady stream of mailings from the city. “They did the minimum to say they reached out,” Peterson said.
Jensen said she has the sense that city officials are hostile to ART critics. Earlier this year, she attended an ART meeting and asked about ART’s finances because Congress has yet to approve any money for the project – which she argues creates the potential that there may be a funding gap well into the project’s construction.
“I asked them, ‘Are you breaking ground before you have federal funding?”’ Jensen said. “And they looked at me like I was the devil.”
ABQ Free Press editorial intern Johnny Vizcaino contributed research for this article.
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