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The Battle of Route 66

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A drive down Albuquerque’s Central Avenue, the old Route 66, is a journey both through Americana and the globalized era of the 21st century. From east to west, travelers cruise by quaint antique shops and strip malls, dive bars and upscale eateries, a big casino and the largest university in the state, and flea-bag hotels and pricey condos and apartments that exude gentrification.

Junkies and boozers, working women and homeless men, Jesus worshippers and Saturday night sinners, struggling migrants and money-making Millenials, serious scholars and slacker students, and old-timers and newcomers alike all share the busy thoroughfare whose mother road was immortalized in the hit song “(Get your kicks on) Route 66.”

Up and down Central, locals and tourists enjoy the iconic eateries, watering holes and other businesses that give La Avenida its flavor-Kap’s, Loyola’s, Mannie’s, the artsy Guild Theater and, of course, the Frontier Restaurant, bustling in a décor of John Wayne and Indian paintings and the big, behind-the-counter timeline that traces the chile-laden history of a Duke City landmark which first opened in 1971 and has witnessed everything from the anti-Vietnam war protests to the 2014 uprising against the Albuquerque Police Department.

A trip down Central Avenue is a taste of Chicano, Native American, Mexican, western Anglo, African-American, Vietnamese, Thai, Cajun, and other cultures.

In a city where decades of attempts at downtown redevelopment have yet to strike the magic traction, Central Avenue has, in a broad sense, evolved as one long downtown, or a series of downtowns if you will-Nob Hill, UNM, Downtown proper, and Old Town.

All this could be in for a huge transformation soon if Republican Mayor Berry and allied Democratic city councilors have their way. Against fierce public opposition, Burque’s powers-that-be are pushing an ambitious bus transit plan called Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) ostensibly aimed at transporting the city from the 20th century Age of the Automobile into the 21st Century Age of Mass Transit.

ART proposes to turn nine miles of Central Avenue west from Louisiana Boulevard near the Sandia foothills to Coors Boulevard past the Rio Grande into a more pedestrian-friendly route complete with dedicated bus lanes, widened sidewalks, energy-efficient LED lighting, signalized crosswalks, and canopied bus stops where medians now stand. Users of ART will be required to purchase tickets from machines before boarding buses that will be equipped with Wi-Fi.

Providing more frequent service, rapid buses will zip up and down Central Avenue, some branching off to a connecting route up Louisiana Boulevard to the growing Uptown shopping/entertainment district in the Northeast Heights.

As part of its campaign to sell ART, the City of Albuquerque even ranks the potential service as far superior to similar routes in Las Vegas  and Mexico City.

What’s more, ART boosters contend the plan will give an economic-shot-in-the-arm and reap long-term benefits to a city that never really recovered from the Great Recession. Predicting a far different scenario, opponents maintain ART will not only destroy existing small businesses, but wind up mutilating an important side of the city’s historic face. Homeowners have also spoken out against ART, fearful of the rerouting of traffic and the disruption that entails to their lives.

Speaking out a recent public meeting, one woman even likened ART to the Taliban “blowing up the Buddah statues in Afghanistan.”

For Pete Dinelli, a former Albuquerque public safety chief and an unsuccessful challenger to Mayor Berry in the 2014 election,  ART conjures up negative memories of downtown urban renewal during the 1960s and 1970s. “I was there. My father had a business on Central Avenue,” Dinelli said.

Urging a public vote on the controversy, Dinelli insisted that ART was like a “knife slicing (Central Avenue) right down the middle.”

Although 80 percent of ART’s $119 million-plus price tag is slated to be covered by federal funds, the City of Albuquerque will have to kick in the remaining dough for a project that is exceeding its original cost estimate of $100 million even before the first stone is turned.

The Albuquerque City Council could take action later this month on measures related to ART funding and the establishment of a business advisory council. If all the ducks fall in the place, major construction could begin this year to meet the Berry administration’s goal of completing ART by the fall of 2017- the year before Berry’s term of office ends.

The looming tear-up of Central Avenue, combined with the loss of street parking and the uncertain promises of gaggles of spend-crazy consumers suddenly arising from the depths of recession to descend on La Avenida from nifty new buses and ready to empty their pocketbooks, has many business owners up in arms.

A website that serves as a sort of Anti-ART Central, Savert66.org, lists scores of businesses and homeowner associations opposed to ART, contains a petition with about 500 signatures and 150 written comments against the project, and appeals on readers to write letters of protest to elected officials.

The administrator of the site, Steve Schroeder, said he now devotes about six hours a day on the phone handling public inquiries about ART but has received contradictory responses from elected officials.

Schroeder said no member of New Mexico’s Congressional delegation has spoken with him yet, but a staffer from Albuquerque City Council Rep Ken Sanchez’s office  invited him to a meeting to discuss the creation of an advisory board of businesses impacted by ART.

Schroeder, who is the owner of Nob Hill music on Central Avenue, said he was suspicious of such a committee.

Public turnouts have been historic at a series of ART meetings  sponsored by the City of Albuquerque in recent weeks, where many residents vociferously demanded a halt to the plan.

In this age of citizen journalism and instantaneous information, it’s not surprising that scenes from the meetings are posted on YouTube. At one encounter Democratic City Councilor Ike Benton, a staunch supporter of ART, is seen arguing with a pair of attendees, and even challenging one irate man to settle the matter with him outside.

The last ART public meeting held March 8 at the Albuquerque Convention Center was a more subdued affair, with fewer people showing up than expected and a vocal contingent of ART supporters in attendance.

Beautifully graphed charts and pictures depicting the New Central Avenue of ART led into the spacious hall where City of Albuquerque Chief Operating Officer Michael Riordan chaired a panel of consultants and officials enlisted to answer questions, including a representative of Bradbury Stamm, the big construction company now in charge of overseeing the project and its future sub-contracts, and Joanie Griffin, co-owner of a prize-winning Duke City PR and marketing firm.

To the chagrin of many, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and city council reps were not on hand.

Riordan tackled widespread questioning about the city government’s public outreach on such a controversial matter, noting that the process for a state-of-the-art bus transit system began back in 2002. The initiative later picked up steam with the convening of 18 public meetings plus five more recent ones, reaching 6600 public contacts. “I understand you can’t get the word out to everybody,” Riordan said, “but we try…”

About 100 people showed up for the public comment and question-and-answer session, which mostly consisted of comments limited to two minutes carefully timed by an official.  Speakers from both sides drew loud applause from their respective camps.

A significant number of participants were pro-ART, self-described Millenials like resident Emily Hunt, who declared with a deep look of sincerity that “(mass) transportation is part of my life.”

Like-minded Millenials endorsed ART as a project that would make Albuquerque attractive to the so-called creative class, detonate an economic revival and help stem the steady outflow of young New Mexicans to other states or, as one young man put it, curb “the brain drain.”

The pro-ART Millenials’ statements stirred questions of class, race and family. Anti-ART citizen Maria Bautista, retorted, “We’re the poor people. I’m not a Millennial. I’m two Millenials old. I don’t have a lap top. I still use cursive, and I am good at it.”

Ironically, a 2014 article in the Albuquerque Journal reported that census tracks showed the greatest concentration of local Millenials, outside the University of New Mexico area, was found in a southwestern quadrant of the city that won’t be directly served by ART.

ART supporter Joshua Smith, who identified himself as a resident of the East Mountains, brought along his four young children who sat quietly in a side row. Strongly favoring ART, Smith said he and his family love dropping into Albuquerque to visit Nob Hill, but have problems crossing Central Avenue on foot because of the current traffic flows.

“For anybody who is against this project, explain to me how take four kids and cross the street?”

A comment from one man about the alleged dangers of Central Avenue, promoted another man to quip, “Yeah, there’s too many brown people, right?”  For his part, Nathan Todd told the gathering that the bus system is overloaded on some days, Central Avenue’s lanes are too wide and drivers speed on the Old Mother Road.

“I think it would be a travesty if you pass (up) this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.

Taking to the microphone, an array of ART critics blasted the scheme as an ill-conceived one that would strangle already-struggling businesses, create more automobile congestion on Central Avenue because of planned lane eliminations and result in yet more bottlenecks from the rerouting of traffic to nearby thoroughfares, some of which already underwent lane narrowing and major reconstruction a few years ago.

Opponents question spending money on ART while the city grapples with deep, structural problems of poverty, violence, addiction and homelessness; suspicion is rife that politically-connected private contractors and real estate developers are waiting in line to rope the cash cow of anticipated public money from the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts Capital Grant.

Support and opposition to ART does not break down along simple left-right and Democratic-Republican lines. Don Schrader, who’s become an Albuquerque icon because of his epic, bare-chested hikes up and down Central Avenue and the frequent, polemical letters-to-the-editor he writes on everything from the joys of gay sex to the barbarity of war and imperialism, praised conservative City Council Rep Dan Lewis at the March 8 meeting for taking a stand against ART.

(ART) is not intended to include low-income people,” Schrader contended. “Why is there only one (bus) station between (low-income zone) San Mateo and Louisiana?” Schrader remarked to the panel. “Money should be spent on homelessness and fighting addictions.”

An additional controversy is percolating over the origin of a portion of the money destined for ART. Community activists are protesting a proposal by the City of Albuquerque to channel funds originally generated from a federal Pocket-of-Poverty program to ART.

Totaling five million dollars, the money in question was originally intended for economic development purposes in low-income, historically Latino and African-American Albuquerque neighborhoods, including San Jose, Barelas, Sawmill, South Broadway and others, but was never spent.

Despite the Great Recession and accompanying housing crisis, the funds, presumably overseen by the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Economic Development Fund Committee (HNEDFC), have sat unused since 2007- years which spanned the last stretch of the third administration of former Democratic Mayor Martin Chavez and the two-terms of current Republican Mayor Richard Berry.

Of the available $5 million, the City of Albuquerque has presented a proposal to spend $2.5 million on ART-related purposes, including up to $2 million in compensation for business owners along Central Avenue affected by the construction. The remaining $500,000 is destined for for providing loans for “underutilized” buildings, and facilitating employment linkages. Interviewed inside the Convention Center just prior to the March 8 meeting where she spoke against the proposal, IIse Biehl, said a certain irony existed with using the anti-poverty money.

“They’re not just getting Peter to pay Paul. Peter has been designated as the poorest neighborhoods in the city,” said Biehl. “It’s not that I am against the transit system per se, but there’s so much to do in this city.”

Biehl and fellow community activist Chad Gruber criticized as grossly inadequate the public notification and decision-making process surrounding the HNEDFC’s ART proposal, asserting that people were unaware of both the money and public meetings held to expedite the city’s proposal.

Biana Encinias, a resident of the Wells Park section of Albuquerque that is within the original pocket of poverty designation, said in a separate interview that she recently went to a meeting of her neighborhood association only to discover that nobody knew about the HNEDFC’s money.

“Basically, these communities don’t know this money is in the bank,” Encinias said. “Sawmill, Martineztown, Wells Park-they don’t know.”

Encinias said she was aware of the City of Albuquerque’s efforts to update and redefine the local pocket of poverty in order to extend the possible use of the designated money, but that poverty still persisted within the old designation and includes areas of South Broadway, San Jose and other communities which fall outside the zone charted out for immediate ART benefits.

In a March 2 e-mail to stakeholders, City of Albuquerque consultants Karen Dunning and Brian Reilly, wrote that the director of the city department connected to the HNEDFC “wants to extend the public input process to be sure people feel there is time to do the draft plan justice…”

Dunning and Reilly added that a schedule of new meetings for the coming weeks will be issued, “with the ultimate goal of having the (HNEDF) Committee’s recommendations considered by the (City) Council in May.”

As this story went to press, no dates of new meetings had yet been posted on the city’s website.

Another frequently heard criticism of ART is that as a Central Avenue centric project, it ignores the demand for bus service in underserved sections of Albuquerque, especially on the West Side and in the Northeast Heights where the bulk of the city’s population resides but is located far from a convenient route or only has access to buses that are few and far between and cut off service early in the evening.

In contrast, what ART essentially accomplishes is a replacement of an existing rapid bus route on Central Avenue, albeit with lots more bells and whistles, according to the critics.

A beefy young man who introduced himself to the Convention Center crowd as Bob tackled the issue head-on, saying he too was a Millenial bus rider but lived far from Central Avenue and had to rely on spotty service.

“We don’t need more buses on Central. ART is a luxury but necessities haven’t been met,” Bob said, even as he began preparing an early departure from the meeting. “I’d like to stick around and see what the rest of the people have to say, but I can’t miss the last bus.”

In response to the criticism of the Central Avenue focus of ART, city officials affirm that the specific federal grant earmarked for ART can’t be used for existing services, and that ART is just the beginning of an expanded mass transit system and a vibrant economy.

But in a political environment where many needs are crying out for money while budgets remain tight or subject to cuts, it’s anybody’s guess where future funding for ART Plus will come from.

For now, ART has the aura of enshrining or destroying political careers on both sides of the aisle. On this score, anti-ART activist Steve Schroeder vowed he and others will stay active if the project comes about. “Our new mantra is going to be ‘You vote yes, we vote no next time you run for any office,’” Schroeder said.

If the mass transit plan goes forward and is successful in both its transportation and economic aspects, the planners and promoters behind it could well gain a spot in the hall of fame of visionaries who gave a green uplift to Albuquerque.

But If ART fails to deliver the goods, it’s almost certain the project will simmer in controversy like the problem-plagued Vivebus system in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City down the Camino Real, while the authors and enablers of the scheme might will earn prominent mention in the historical record of New Mexico’s greatest boondoggles.

Kent Paterson writes for Frontera NorteSur

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