June 29, 2016

ART hits new speed bumps

Albuquerque Rapid Transit

Andy Lyman

Mayor Richard Berry’s $119 million Albuquerque Rapid Transit project along Central just got a double-dose of bad news.

Albuquerque Rapid TransitThe U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee has recommended a $19 million cut in funding for project, and the New Mexico Restaurant Association now opposes ART.

The Appropriations Committee, in its 2017 budget proposal to the full House, has recommended that the FTA’s Small Starts grant for ART be cut from $69 million to $50 million, according to the committee’s report.

In the Senate, the Appropriations Committee has recommended that the FTA’s Small Starts grants – of which ART is just one applicant – total $240.7 million for all 10 projects, about half of the $407.8 million the House wants to spend. The difference in proposed spending will have to be worked out in conference committee negotiations, and those could be months away.

The House-Senate compromise could lead to a funding cut for ART in excess of $19 million.

While a cut of $19 million wouldn’t necessarily be fatal to ART – additional funding could be forthcoming in future years – a cut could delay it, or reduce its size from the proposed 10-mile route.

ART spokeswoman Joanie Griffin, CEO of the Griffin & Associations public relations firm, said ART is funded for $69 million in President Obama’s proposed budget. That’s true, but it’s Congress, and not the President, that actually appropriates federal money.

“We are confident in the ABQ Rapid Transit project and that we will get the full $69 million Small Starts grant that is currently in the President’s budget,” Griffin said. “The remainder of the money for the project comes from other federal money and local matching funds. What Congress is doing is part of the normal budget process. The budget process will not be completed until after the [November] election.”

More opponents

Another hammer blow to ART came on June 28 from the New Mexico Restaurant Association, which said it opposes the project that would have dedicated ART bus lanes down the middle of Central and generally reduce general vehicular traffic to one lane in each direction between Louisiana on the east and Coors on the west.

Albuquerque Rapid Transit sign in downtown Albuquerque

Albuquerque Rapid Transit sign in downtown Albuquerque

“We have hundreds of members on Central and all of them we have talked to are against this and have asked us to come out against it,” Carol Wight, the association’s CEO, told ABQ Free Press. “They are not against doing something on Central; they are against the mayor’s proposal.”

Wight said the NMRA would support the legal battle that an anti-ART group, Make ART Smart, is waging in federal court. The group has filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop ART until, at a minimum, the FTA orders the city to study its environmental impact along the route.

“We have decided to support the Make ART Smart legal battle, and basically it is for our members,” Wight said. “It is always very difficult for brick-and-mortar businesses like restaurants; they lose significant amounts of traffic and business during any kind of construction, but to double that, they will be losing left-hand turn lanes into their businesses.” ART’s bus platforms in Central’s medians would eliminate 240 left-turn lanes.

Wight said that ART construction, which the city had hoped to complete by late next year, could kill the budding signs of economic development along Central.

“We have these little economic development areas that are working for us now, and we are going to smother them with construction and no access,” Wight said. “And the whole project is not innovative at all. Here we are putting in a 30-year-old diesel bus system. Can we not be more innovative than that?”

Legal battle

A federal court judge has scheduled a two-day hearing July 27-28 for arguments for ART opponents’ requested injunction to halt the project.

Photo Credit: Joe Gratz cc

Joe Gratz

Photo Credit: Joe Gratz cc

Attorney Yolanda Gallegos, who represents the plaintiffs in one of the two federal lawsuits challenging ART, said city officials have yet to receive permission from the FTA to spend any of the grant money – money that Congress has yet to appropriate.

The city can’t spend that Small Starts grant until it gets a “Letter of no Prejudice” from the FTA. The city applied for the letter in May, but has yet to get it, Gallegos said.

The court case centers on allegations that the FTA improperly granted the city an exemption, or categorical exclusion, from having to do an environment study on ART’s impact. The FTA approved the exemption seven business days after receiving the city’s 1,800-page application.

“The FTA has a legal obligation to re-evaluate the granting of that exclusion before it issues what is called a ‘Letter of no Prejudice,’” Gallegos said. “The city applied for this letter in early May, and here we are at the end of June and they have not received it yet. The city’s claim that this [ART] is a done deal is just not the case.”

Ridership down

In the midst of the battle over the Albuquerque Rapid Transit Project, bus ridership continues to decline. During the first four months of 2016, city bus boardings totaled 3.7 million, down from nearly 4 million for the same period in 2015 – a 7.5 percent decline – according to figures city transit officials have given the FTA. Boardings in 2015 totaled 11.6 million, which was a 10 percent reduction from the 12.9 million in 2014. ABQ Ride spokesman Rick De Reyes said he would have to review the FTA’s numbers before commenting.

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