Call it déjà vu all over again. Or, it might sound like restating the obvious. But either way, the battle over extending Paseo del Norte through the Petroglyph National Monument is destined for litigation, again.
That's because last week the SAGE Council and a list of plaintiffs that includes the National Trust for Historic Preservation, SouthWest Organizing Project, New Mexico Archeological Council and several others filed suit against Mayor Martin Chavez and the City Council to halt plans to construct the road. And once more, before a single shovelful of dirt gets lifted, the discussion will hinge on the definition of "feasible and prudent alternative."
"We feel forced to file this lawsuit," said Laurie Weahkee, spokeswoman for SAGE. "The mayor and city are bound by state law, and we feel they have not done a comprehensive study of the alternatives."
City Councilor Michael Cadigan, who supports the road extension and represents the northwest district that includes the petroglyphs, said the State Historic Preservation Act will not been violated. "In my opinion, we've complied with it completely," said Cadigan. "All of the alternatives now have buildings or houses on them. The studies indicate the costs of alternatives are so enormous, they are not reasonable."
The question, however, remains: Have the "studies" looked at all the possible alternatives, and do these "studies" determine that a road through the petroglyphs will justifiably alleviate traffic problems?
A quick refresher: Opponents of the project, including environmental groups and Native American rights activists, contend the road violates federal and state laws that protect the sanctity of the area while offering no long-term relief to the Westside's urban sprawl problems. On the other hand, supporters of the road, namely Mayor Martin Chavez, Westside developers and many area residents, have two parallel interests—some say it will alleviate traffic problems; others will benefit financially.
Last summer, opponents tried to keep the Paseo extension off the 2004 city road bond after a similar bond was defeated in 2003. At this time SAGE Council submitted a letter from the State Historic Preservation Office that stated the project wasn't in compliance with state law, but a majority on the City Council and the mayor ignored the letter, according to Laurie Weahkee. Opponents then asked the City Council to separate the controversial Paseo plan from the road bond and submit the plan to voters in a stand-alone bond. None of this worked; the road supporters got Paseo on the bond, then won passage easily with the help of a public relations campaign sponsored by Quality Neighborhoods Committee—a group funded almost exclusively by PNM and folks in the real estate development industry.
Then on Feb. 7, the City Council appropriated $12 million of the $59 million bond for the Paseo project and the city began seeking construction bids, with work scheduled to begin by early summer. The $12 million would fund the construction of one-half mile of Paseo del Norte from Golf Course Road (where it dead-ends today) to the top of the escarpment and then a temporary asphalt road will be built by the city to connect the road to Universe Boulevard. Paseo would eventually intersect with Unser and sprawl will continue westward with fewer hassles.
But, not so fast say the road's opponents, who last week held true to a promise to file a lawsuit arguing that road extension would violate the New Mexico Prehistoric and Historic Sites Preservation Act, which prohibits the use of historic sites for any public project, including roads, unless there is no "feasible and prudent alternative."
Interestingly, the most recent study related to the Paseo extension—and one that has been used by both sides to support their cause—is the Mid-Region Council of Governments' May 2004 report, entitled "A Transportation analysis of the Paseo del Norte Extension."
Listed as a "major finding" is this statement: "From a functional and cost perspective there are no reasonable alternatives to the currently planned alignment for the Paseo Del Norte Extension." This can be interpreted in many ways, although it generally seems to mean the shortest and cheapest way to get from point a to point b is a straight line.
Then there is the second major finding, which states: "From a system perspective the value of the Paseo Del Norte Extension over time is compromised by downstream congestion on the river crossings. The best opportunity for congestion relief in both the near and long term is the construction of Unser as a continuous four-lane facility between I-40 and Southern Boulevard." You might fairly take this to mean bottlenecked traffic at the Paseo river crossing will eventually back up traffic further westward, especially during the rush-hour commute, and a better solution for traffic relief is the completion of Unser, the true north-south passage. Or, you might take this statement to mean something else.
The third major finding states: "Congestion on the river crossings and other key Westside facilities is anticipated to become much more severe over time." Now that sounds pretty clear. If you live on the Westside, the real cost of your home, if the commute time and all related travel expenses are factored in, is going to increase as Westside sprawl continues as anticipated, whether your property values increase, or not.
"The paper we produced did not look at the whole issue of feasible and prudent alternatives," said Chris Blewett, director of transportation and planning services at MRCOG and the principal author of the study. "There are a bunch of different dimensions—prudent and feasible isn't really defined anywhere that I know of."
The original purpose of the report was to explore the traffic impact at the Paseo river crossing caused by extending Paseo westward. However, MRCOG broadened the focus, slightly, at the request of the governor and other city councilors to analyze other options that might assuage existing traffic problems. Blewett, whose personal opinion on the matter was indeterminate during our interview, seemed to sum up the larger issue surrounding the definition of feasible and prudent alternative. "People have read the report who say it supports extending Paseo; others say it shows Paseo extension is not needed. It really depends on what you value as a human being."
If the project survives a lawsuit, according to Blewett, the Paseo extension will provide relief for local traffic around Paradise and Irving. However, if people are looking at the extension as a cure for congestion at the river crossings it will not do that. "I don't know if there is a cure for that to be honest with you," said Blewett.
As for the outcome of this latest fight, Betsy Merrit deputy general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation said, "It would be helpful to have a court issue a ruling interpreting the state law—to confirm it means what is says."
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