Fact Checking a Recent Newspaper Article about Albuquerque Rapid Transit
Berry’s Bus Rapid Transit: Boon or Boondoggle? (ABQ RIDE responses in bold italics)
It’s Mayor Richard Berry’s $100 million gamble – a bet he wants to make with taxpayers’ money to upgrade a mode of transportation that almost no one uses. The use of the term “almost no one uses” isn’t accurate. Since FY12, ABQ RIDE has consistently recorded in the neighborhood of 13 million passenger boardings a year.
It’s called Bus Rapid Transit, and Berry wants to spend $10 million a mile to carve out dedicated bus lanes and bus stations, color-splashed, tent-like awnings, plus 8, 50-passenger buses that sort of look like trains along a 10-mile-long stretch of Central Avenue.
To its supporters, BRT will revive Albuquerque’s stagnant, federally dependent economy, lead to redevelopment along Central, and transform Albuquerque into a hip, happening city that attracts businesses and millennials.
To its critics, Berry’s plan is a waste of money that will destroy small businesses along Central, make the already traffic-congested street more so, and do nothing to build a thriving, private-sector economy while replacing an existing system – Rapid Ride – that works perfectly well. The Rapid Rides have operated efficiently in transporting riders on Central Ave., However, they can get stuck in traffic during key, rush hour periods. Albuquerque Rapid Transit would be timelier in serving passengers’ needs. As for whether such a system can building a “thriving, private sector economy,” we use the example for Fort Collins, CO, which opened its five-mile version of Bus Rapid Transit in May, 2014. It is already producing $148-million in development along its route. (fcgov.com/maxconstructionfcgov.com/mason)
One of the proposal’s critics said it’s a smoke-and-mirrors attempt by Berry to draw attention away from his lack of a track record in economic development in his six-and-a-half years in office.
Support of the proposal appears to be lukewarm. Several city councilors who have bought into the idea said they are concerned about its cost and its potential to drive small businesses away from Central. Yet, City Councilors agreed to issue $13 million dollars of gross receipts tax revenue bonds for this project.
How we get to work
Workers 16 and over 311,764
Car, truck, van – solo 247,898 79.5 percent
Carpooled, 29,838 9.6 percent
Public transp. 5,018 1.6 percent
Walked 6,393 2 percent
Other means 10,272 3.3 percent
Worked at home 12,345 4 percent
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Commuting Habits in the First Congressional District.
What this statistic doesn’t tell you is that the First Congressional District isn’t just Albuquerque. It also includes rural Torrance County, plus parts of rural Santa Fe, Sandoval (including Rio Rancho) and Valencia Counties. Only a few buses operate in those areas. When you use the U.S. Census’ own census tract and census block group levels between Tramway and the Rio Grande, the figure of people using public transportation in Albuquerque is between 5-9 %. That’s quite a difference. Also, the Census data used in this article neither provides the year this survey was published, nor the year that this information was gathered. That has a big effect on the “statistics” cited.
Berry is betting on a form of transit that almost no one uses. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 1.6 percent of people over the age of 16 in the First Congressional District now use public transportation to get to their jobs. Seventy-nine percent take cars or trucks to work. Since FY12, ABQ RIDE has consistently recorded in the neighborhood of 13 million passenger boardings a year. Even the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C. public policy organization has ranked Albuquerque among the top ten cities in the nation the past few years when it comes to connecting workers to jobs using public transportation.
Berry’s idea involves about $20 million in local tax money and $80 million in federal money and has yet to be approved by the Federal Transportation Administration. The BRT would basically run train-like, rubber-wheeled buses down the two middle lanes of Central from Louisiana on the east to Coors on the west. Albuquerque just submitted its application to the Federal Transit Administration for funding. Among the information the application had to provide: a Ridership Forecast, Financial Plan, Traffic Analysis and Compatibility with Land Use Regulations.
The street’s medians would be turned into bus stations every mile or so, and those two center lanes would be for buses only, meaning that for most of that stretch, auto traffic would be reduced to one lane in each direction. The plan also calls for widening sidewalks and improving landscaping along the 10-mile stretch. Some stretches of Central will have different median configurations. Some areas will have two lanes of traffic in each direction. Other sections of the proposed ART route will have a bi-directional guideway to allow for two lanes in each direction. All of this came to be through neighborhood and business input along different stretches of Central Avenue.
The BRT buses themselves would run from Tramway on the east to Atrisco on the west, but it’s that 10-mile length of dedicated bus lanes and stations in the middle of the street that has many business owners along the route fuming. The dedicated lanes will reduce auto traffic, eliminate many left-hand-turn lanes which provide access to side streets and their businesses, and reduce or eliminate parking on Central, critics argue. ART buses will run from Tramway on the east to Central and Unser on the west. We have met and continue to reach out to business owners along Central. Many of those businesses have written letters of support for ABQ RIDE’s application for funding to the Federal Government. Most of the intersections will have protected left hand turns and protected U-turns. Plans also include protected pedestrian crossings, making Central safer for pedestrians.
Supporters say it will make Central more pedestrian-friendly and be a magnet for people who don’t want to use cars to get around. It will also spur economic development along the route and in Downtown Albuquerque, they say.
“My one and only concern is that we protect accessibility to businesses and make sure it is very smooth and efficient while maintaining, wherever possible, on-street parking,” said City Councilor Isaac Benton, who concedes he has concerns the project will interrupt the spate of recent redevelopment projects along Central between Downtown and Old Town.
Real estate broker Todd Clarke of New Mexico Apartment Advisors, Inc., said he believes BRT will attract millennials to the area.
“You need a transit system that really appeals to white-collar workers; the Central bus is not exactly a white-collar crowd,” Clarke said. “What we have learned with the Cleveland BRT is that you need to have something that feels more like a train.”
City Councilor Rey Garduño said Central is a commercial, and not an automobile, corridor, and that if motorists want better traffic flow they should drive other east-west streets.
“Some people are concerned about vehicular traffic, but Central was never built for that reason. We have Gibson, Menaul and Lomas [for people who want to drive 35 mph or faster],” Garduño said.
Among the BRT’s detractors, none is as vocal as Greg Payne, a former city councilor who served as the city’s transit director from 2005 through 2009. “It’s an absolute boondoggle and a rip-off of taxpayer money,” Payne said.
“I think most people would rather see us focus on getting the economy back on track, and getting the Albuquerque Police Department back on track,” Payne said.Payne served as transit director under then-Mayor Marty Chavez. When Berry ran against Chavez in 2009, Berry opposed Chavez’s plans to build a light rail system in the city. BRT isn’t far away from light rail, and has a similar price tag, Payne said. Approximately $100 million for the proposed Albuquerque Rapid Transit project compared to an estimated cost of $224 million for a street car project. Albuquerque Rapid Transit will be more effective and cost pennies on the dollar compared to light rail.
“It’s the political hypocrisy of R.J. Berry demonizing light rail and modern streetcars and turning around with a proposal that is every bit as expensive and less effective,” Payne said. He added that Berry’s proposal is like “Rapid Ride on crack.”
Doug Peterson is the principal of Peterson Properties in Albuquerque. The firm owns 15 properties on Central from 102nd Street on the West Side to San Pedro in the mid-Heights. He opposes the BRT on grounds it will eliminate the ability of cars to make left-hand turns and reduce access to as many as 140 properties along the route. Along the Albuquerque Rapid Transit route, there are not only signalized left hand turns, but also signalized U-turns every ¼ to ½ mile along the route. A signalized U-turn will only delay travel time by anywhere from 30-90 seconds.
“This design drastically reduces the number of customers visiting the affected properties, as customers will likely avoid driving on Central altogether or, if they do drive on Central, they will simply choose a different business to satisfy their need as opposed to taking a ridiculously circuitous route,” said Peterson, who served for six years on the Albuquerque Environmental Planning Commission. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and others have studied the impacts of similar projects on businesses and safety. Some of the important results of this research are:
• The vast majority of businesses have as much (or more) business after projects that reduced left-turn access;
• Customers do not have a problem making U-turns to access a business;
• Left-turn restrictions do not significantly impact property values
“The city has sparse credibility when it comes to telling us that a major initiative will increase private development,” he said. “I’ve read every sector plan, corridor plan and overlay zone the city’s created. All but a handful have failed to benefit the areas they cover, and nearly everyone stated that it would spur development. ABQ RIDE doesn’t develop sector plans or overlay zones. However, we have improved ridership along Central Avenue with the introduction of the Rapid Ride service, and we believe that transit will again be improved with the ART service. As far as development, there are numerous cities that have seen development increase in conjunction with a Bus Rapid Transit system. For instance, in a 2013 report on transit-oriented development, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) concluded that per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit leverages more transit-oriented development investment than Light Rail or streetcars. As for potential for transit-oriented development, a city like Eugene, Oregon (roughly a third the size of Albuquerque) is listed as having $100 million worth of transit-oriented development since the opening of its EmX (Emerald Express) BRT system in 2007. (http://media.metro.net/projects_studies/tod/images/IDTP%20%E2%80%93%20More%20Development%20for%20your%20Transit%20Dollar.pdf)
“To verify that, spend some time on the city’s website reading such duds as the East Gateway Sector Development Plan, the North Fourth Street Rank III Corridor Plan, or the South Yale Sector Development Plan and reflect upon the empty promises in their opening pages.”
Randal O’Toole is a transportation expert with the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank. He said Berry’s BRT proposal is a mistake for several reasons – one of them being the city’s suburban, spread-out nature.
“Transit will never be important in Albuquerque because Albuquerque jobs and residences are too spread out,” O’Toole said. “Cities with high transit usage, such as New York and Chicago, have hundreds of thousands of Downtown jobs. But only about 44,000 jobs are located in Downtown Albuquerque and the rest are so finely distributed that transit is not a viable option for most people.” Central Avenue is not a suburban spread-out development. It has a complete, corridor development project with improvements for traffic, wide sidewalks for pedestrians, improved lighting, etc.
The question that many ask is why BRT is needed along Central when the city’s Rapid Ride buses do the same thing – provide an express-like service with fewer stops and increased frequency than regular buses.
The three Rapid Ride routes, two of which run mostly on Central, leave every 11 to 15 minutes and stop about every mile or so at dedicated stations. They now account for 3.4 million boardings a year or 50 percent of all the bus boardings on Central, according to ABQ Ride figures.
BRT buses would be about the same size as the articulated, 60-foot-long Rapid Ride buses, but they would run every seven-and-a-half minutes, said ABQ Ride spokesman Rick DeReyes.
“More buses will not revitalize Central. It’s already the one area in town that has the highest level of bus service,” Payne said. “If Central was going to be revitalized, it would have happened with Rapid Ride.” ART is more than just improving bus service. It is also about assisting in corridor development. In Nob Hill, an independent study by Detroit-based Gibbs Planning Group (along with the Urban Planning Institute) concluded that to improve business in Nob Hill, several things had to occur. They included, among other things: slowing traffic on Central through Nob Hill to 25 mph, wider sidewalks, more pedestrian crossings, more traffic lights, reduce traffic to one lane each way and encourage more high density housing. These are all hallmarks of Albuquerque Rapid Transit’s plan for the area.
Councilors Garduño and Benton argue that BRT, with its dedicated lanes and pre-boarding ticket purchases, will shave several minutes off the run times and get riders to their destinations along Central more quickly. Payne isn’t sure why Berry decided to pursue BRT, especially when he campaigned against mass transit in 2009. Mayor Berry pursued Bus Rapid Transit because it was the most cost-effective way of creating a timelier service along the city’s most utilized transportation corridor. The Mayor has stated often in the past that if a streetcar or light rail or another option had been the most cost effective, he would have pursued that system for Central Avenue. Compared to costs for a light rail system, ART costs pennies on the dollar.
“He [Berry] has been here for seven years and we’ve had dwindling population, a sinking economy and the worst police department in the nation for excessive-force lawsuits,” Payne said. “Having failed in every other area, he feels like he needs to fail in this one.”