July 21, 2016

Mayor says feds give go-ahead to start ART construction

Albuquerque Rapid Transit sign in downtown Albuquerque

Mayor Richard Berry says the city has received approval from the federal government to immediately begin construction on the $119 million Albuquerque Rapid Transit project.

Albuquerque Rapid Transit sign in downtown Albuquerque

Albuquerque Rapid Transit sign in downtown Albuquerque

The federal OK comes just days before a hearing next week on two federal court lawsuits seeking to stop ART. The city will hold off on beginning ART until after a judge rules, Berry said.

The approval to spend federal grant money came in the form of a “Letter of No Prejudice” from the Federal Transit Administration, which allows the city to spend up to $59 million in federal grant money on the project. The FTA issued the letter on Monday.

“ART is a world class transit project that is expected to bring over $2 billion in economic opportunity for Albuquerque and our citizens,” Berry said in a news release. “This authorization from the FTA speaks to the quality of the project, rigor involved to get to this point, and an unwavering commitment by our federal partners.”

The FTA’s letter, however, does not guarantee that Congress will fully fund ART. Appropriations committees in both the House and Senate have recommended cutting the $69 million FTA’s proposed spending on smilar small transit projects by anywhere from $19 million to 40 percent.

In giving the city permission go begin ART construction, the FTA warned that all of the promised federal funding might not be forthcoming. “The authority to incur costs provided in this letter does not constitute an FTA commitment that future Federal dollars will be approved for the project,” the FTA’s letter to the city said.

A two-day hearing on the lawsuits seeking to stop ART is scheduled to begin on July 27 before U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales. The lawsuits argue that the FTA improperly gave the city a pass on having to study ART’s environmental impact. That pass came in the form of a “categorical exclusion” from having to do the environmental study. But attorneys for the plaintiffs have argued that in order to get the exemption, the city certified that there was no major controversy surrounding the project.

But, the attorneys said, wasn’t true because more than 100 business along the ART route on Central Avenue have opposed the project since at least last summer. And recently, the New Mexico Restaurant Association came out in opposition to ART.

Flying Star restaurant owner Jean Bernstein, who is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, said Thursday that she, the other plaintiffs and their attorneys “feel very confident about the strength of our lawsuit.”

Berry’s news release said that while the city can immediately begin ART construction, but “out of respect for the process, the U.S. District Court, and the ongoing lawsuit, the City will hold off on preconstruction activities until after next week’s hearing.”