Right now, cities in the Southwest are pinning the future of mass transit on a system known as bus rapid transit or BRT. In Albuquerque, plans to create a new BRT along historic Route 66 are generating intense controversy.
Supporters say it will bring economic development, more walkable streets and make it easier for residents across the Rio Grande to access jobs. Business owners fear construction and increased congestion will mean fewer customers.
Mayor Richard J. Berry has fond memories of his arrival in Albuquerque almost 35 years ago, and Central Avenue.
“I love the Mother Road. We have the longest Route 66 in the country and we have tremendous opportunities we have not been taking advantage of,” Berry said.
As Berry sees it, those opportunities include a drastic revamp to the city's transit system, which will be partially paid for with a $70 million federal grant to build a bus rapid transit system.
There are signs on many of the buildings in the Nob Hill stretch of Central that say “No rapid transit.” The lingering recession has taken its toll. Albuquerque city officials say the transit project will bring more investment in the corridor. But opponents disagree
“We don't believe for a second that it's going to bring us magical extra business,” said Jean Bernstein, who owns the Flying Star restaurant on Central. She was attending a packed public meeting to discuss the transit project.
“Right now there are 35,000 cars a day [that] go down Central. I'm not sure where they're going to go,” Bernstein said. “Longer term, people will avoid the area and I'm not sure what will happen to businesses that require more than neighborhood traffic.”
Robert Munro has a different perspective. He owns a pub and sports bar near the proposed transit route. The way he sees it, this project could be a golden opportunity for a city in need of revitalization.
“Do I think between now and the next three years I might have some boon of business of people hopping on the bus and getting off at O'Niell’s? I don't,” Munro said. “But the amenities that come with it are going to create an atmosphere in East Nob Hill that desperately needs it."
The design for the $120 million project includes dedicated bus lanes and a series of stations in the middle of Central Avenue. The current system of buses would be replaced by these buses running every seven or eight minutes.
That will make the system more reliable and faster for riders, according to transit officials.
But Bernstein wants to see the plans revamped and more opportunities for input. Many residents feel the same. They've been packing public meetings since news of the federal money has kicked the project into gear. And the meetings have been growing more contentious.
Maria Bautista is a frequent participant in public meetings. She echoes a sentiment many seem to hold here: The city has a lot of more important issues it should be tackling.
“We don't have adequate mental health facilities, we don't have jobs. So I think that our priorities are a little bit upside down,” Bautista said. “So what it's doing is pitting people who want something nice against the disenfranchised.”
Berry says the funds from the Federal Transit Administration are specifically designated for transit and can't be used for other needs.
“We can't work on homeless initiatives with FTA money. So we're taking the resources and putting them to the highest and best use,” Berry said.
Berry sees rapid transit as part of a larger transportation agenda, including a revamped Paseo del Norte interchange that opened more than a year ago, better bike trails and ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. There are also plans for wider sidewalks, more landscaping and better lighting.
The rapid transit project would cover nearly nine miles initially, at a cost of $1.3 million per mile and its projected to serve nearly 16,000 riders daily. Construction is scheduled to start in May.