The Downside of a Difficult Commute
Some folks think extending Paseo del Norte will alleviate Westside traffic problems, while others say the area is an urban planning nightmare that's only getting worse
People are funny. Take Albuquerque's Westside as an example. Every year for more than a decade, the area north of I-40 and west of I-25 breaks the previous year's record for new home construction. Starter homes keep sprouting like weeds after a spring storm all over the escarpment, and folks keep buying them even while it's common knowledge that a guaranteed traffic disaster comes free with the purchase. To live out there, residents must be, remarkably, willing to accept what District 5 City Councilor Michael Cadigan refers to as "the downside of a very difficult commute."
For thousands of daily drivers, that commute, Cadigan believes, would be alleviated by two road projects: the extension of Paseo del Norte Boulevard through the Petroglyph National Monument and the completion of Unser Boulevard which would connect I-40 to Rio Rancho.
But this is not just a simple matter of building more roads to solve a traffic problem. There are other pieces to the puzzle. Considering the Westside has always lacked sensible urban planning, will building these roads just move the traffic around without solving the problem? Second, Albuquerque voters rejected the 2003 road bond that earmarked the bulk of $52 million for city transportation projects to build out Paseo and Unser—why will this year's election be any different? And third, trying to build a road through a national historic monument is a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Still, Westsiders scream for action, because nothing serves as a reminder that your quality of life sucks like sitting in traffic after spending all day at a boring job that, possibly, you hate. And each year the traffic just keeps getting worse.
State Sen. Joe Carraro also wants these roads built. The traffic, he says, has affected his disposition to the point that he won't drive during certain times of the day.
While optimistic, both Cadigan and Carraro realize that city voters showed their constituents little sympathy by rejecting the road funding last year. Now, barring some significant political maneuvering, it is likely that the Paseo extension will again be included in the 2004 road bond package in November. Again, this will raise the ire and organized opposition of community activists determined to preserve the petroglyphs.
Despite these obstacles, Carraro believes "99 percent" of his constituents support the Paseo extension and, because developers will put up a significant portion of the money to fund the project if public funding fails, he says, "The road will get built, for sure."
Such confidence has been echoed by Mayor Martin Chavez, who would no doubt be smiling widely when casting the first shovelful of dirt at the Paseo groundbreaking—much like he cheerfully helped remove the cottonwood tree when the Montaño bridge was built—if that moment was to occur before he leaves office.
Carraro bought his house in Paradise Hills 20 years ago, when Irving Boulevard was a dirt road. He then ran for the state Senate in 1985 on the promise that he'd deliver state funds to build the Paseo bridge over the Rio Grande. In fact, he swore he would resign from the state Senate if the bridge wasn't built in his first term. "Because I would have moved back to the Eastside," he recalled last week.
In addition to finishing the bridge, Carraro worked with Native Americans, environmentalists and area neighborhoods to establish a Petroglyph State Park in 1987, three years before it was designated a national monument by Congress.
But as development continued to encroach further westward, arguments ensued over the park's boundaries, and community activists became more vigilant and organized to preserve the area from road development. Carraro says an initial handshake agreement to build the road was reached in the '80s and he still feels that agreement should be honored. The Westside has changed radically since then, however, and what is even more obvious today was still evident in the early '90s. That is, the home building along east-west routes like Irving Boulevard and Paradise Boulevard was outpacing the planning for roads. Had those roads been designed as freeways, traffic might not have become such a disaster. But by the time the city did an environmental impact study 10 years ago, widening either of those roads was deemed too costly. Not only were driveways linked to the roads, but widening Paradise would have meant removing and relocating a church and razing other homes. Besides, people didn't like the idea of a freeway running through their neighborhoods. But, they don't like the idea of waiting more than 30 minutes during rush hour to get through the intersection of Paradise and Golf Course Road either, which is the reality today. So, for the past 10 years the city, at least during the two terms of Mayor Chavez, has focused its solution on expanding Paseo del Norte—which despite the name, also runs east-west.
Today, Carraro has grown so frustrated (perhaps appalled is a better word) with the lack of urban planning in his district, he has suggested the folks living west of the Rio Grande between I-40 and the Sandoval County line secede from the rest of Albuquerque and form their own city. (He swears calling it Carraroville was not his idea.)
"If planned growth means planned, to me it means build the road and have areas that are commercial and residential," said Carraro. "I'm not a huge fan of all the development out here, because APS and the city haven't understood the meaning of the word planning. I don't need any more people out here. What I need are roads and schools."
Here's a sample of how complicated the issue is: When it comes to extending Paseo, the U.S. Park Service has no official position, because the eight acres slated to cut through the national monument are managed by City Open Space. That's because, when Congress created the monument in 1990, it mandated some portions be federally managed and other sections managed by the city.
At that time, the Paseo extension was platted to cut across federal land, but once the battle to stop the road became more publicly heated, Congress created the Petroglyph National Monument Boundary Adjustment Act in 1997, removing the proposed roadway from the federal park area. Now the roadway is mapped to go exclusively through the City Open Space portion.
But there are still unresolved jurisdictional issues, because the entire public area from Paradise Hills subdivision to I-40 is part of a federally registered "national historic district." And regardless of the boundary lines and bureaucratic responsibilities, the fact remains that the area contains one of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs anywhere in the United States. In fact, in the proposed Paseo del Norte extension, which cuts across 1,200 feet of the monument before connecting to more private development, a U.S. Park Service archeological map shows at least 50 petroglyphs and other federally protected artifacts.
Now to clarify, or perhaps confuse the matter further, because the area is designated a national historic district, it is automatically recognized as a state historic district as well, and it's legal protection falls under the authority of the State Historic District Preservation office. The simple point here is this: Either the National Trust for Historic Preservation or the State Historic Preservation Officer can file a lawsuit to halt the Paseo extension, if they see fit. What's more, the State Historic District Officer, as far back as 1993, has held that the planning for Paseo does not comply with state law, because the city hasn't shown that there are no “prudent and feasible alternatives" to building a road through the monument.
Interestingly, the City Attorney's office for the past decade has held the opposite opinion, insisting there are no legal barriers to building the road, because it only cuts across City Open Space.
As a result of these conflicting opinions, Gov. Bill Richardson has required the City Council to prove that there are no legal barriers to building the road before he'll allow $3.5 million in state funds to support it.
Michael Quijano straddles two sides of the issue. As a U.S. Park Service employee, he is the chief ranger at Petroglyph National Monument. When asked about the road, he is steadfast in delivering the official line: The park service has no position, it's outside our jurisdiction.
However, coming from a Mexican/Apache background, his connection to the indigenous culture makes him a unique source of information. He is in fact an official liaison with the tribes, whose elders are not typically comfortable or interested in engaging in political debates that involve their sacred religion.
But because of his Indian roots, tribal members have shared historical and spiritual information with Quijano, trusting he would be sensitive to their viewpoint. What Quijano has learned is that all of the tribes in New Mexico, in addition to the Hopi in Arizona and other indigenous cultures stretching into Mexico have sacred ties to the area.
"If a medicine person from another tribe says they have connections to this place, they know I'll understand what they are talking about," said Quijano. "The history, stories, prayers, religious ceremonies, tribal leaders don't want this shared with the public. That's what makes this issue difficult." Even among some tribal members, Quijano said, it would be disrespectful to discuss the sacred religious aspects of the area. To do so in public with non-tribal members is sometimes completely out of the question.
Interestingly, after Mayor Chavez appeared on KUNM's "Native America Calling" radio show in October 2003 to lobby support for the road bond, Sandia Pueblo Gov. Stuwart Paisano made his views known on the issue. Mayor Chavez announced on air that the Pueblos, specifically Sandia Pueblo, supported the Paseo extension. He also stated that not a single petroglyph would be impacted by the road.
In response, Gov. Paisano circulated a letter to the local media calling the mayor's statements "false and misleading." He wrote: "On behalf of the people of Sandia Pueblo and neighboring Native American communities, I would like to set the record straight. The Pueblo of Sandia has never supported the extension of Paseo del Norte through the Petroglyphs, and we never will. ... A commuter highway would desecrate this sacred place."
To this day, archeologists continue to make discoveries in the area illuminating its historical and cultural significance. For example, a recent discovery of corn kernels in a cave near Boca Negra Canyon was sent to Stanford University to be dated. It turned out to be the oldest domesticated corn ever found in the United States. Once returned to New Mexico—with traffic humming along Universe Boulevard and residents sitting comfortably in their living rooms watching television in the near distance—members of the local Native American communities held a ceremony and buried the kernels back into the ground.
Such findings, as other national monuments around the country attest, can be used as a catalyst for economic development. "With a petroglyph research center, which is called for in the Monument's enabling legislation, Albuquerque could have another crown jewel in its pocket, drawing in people from around the world," said Quijano.
Jolene Wolfley has her theories as well. Since 1999, she has lived in a subdivision adjacent to the Boca Negra Canyon boundary. She is also a member of the Westside Roads Committee that will give public recommendations to the City Council in early May. Perhaps most importantly, she also has a degree in city planning from MIT, with over 15 years of professional experience.
Wolfley said the seven-member committee has already voted 5-2 to support the Paseo extension, but she still believes there are ways to bridge the cultural divide.
"I see that it is in the best interest of the development community to help the Native American community protect this authentic space," said Wolfley. "The National Monument with its culture and geology is an extraordinary economic development tool."
Wolfley said a key to recruiting quality employers is offering unique culture and recreation to their employees. "There could be more visitors centers, more recreational trails and a petroglyph research facility, and on the outskirts you could have master-planned communities, resorts and even job centers that drink in the greatness of the space."
Meanwhile, subdivisions continue to sprawl further west of the monument toward Rio Puerco. The housing boom, in fact, has continued unencumbered for the past 15 years without extending Paseo and Unser and without regard for the city infrastructure that has failed to keep up.
As for the Petroglyphs, an area that once provided panoramic views of the Sandias, volcanoes and Mount Taylor, is now bordered by existing or proposed housing developments and molested by the traffic noise from Universe Boulevard—a road built by Sandia Properties that had moonlit protesters lying in the road trying to stop it.
To make matters more complicated, voters opposed the 2003 road bond for a number of reasons: Some opposed encroaching on the monument, others felt the bulk of the $52 million unfairly benefited the Westside, and then there were others that oppose property taxes generally. In other words, there are a lot of minds to win over before any new road funds make it to the Westside.
Still, the entire city needs transportation upgrades and another road bond will be up for a vote this November. Cadigan and Carraro said this year's bond election, on the same ballot as the presidential election, will draw in more favorable voters and improve the bond's chances of passing. And there is one significant change from last year—the state has offered to pitch in $6 million for new Westside roads. Cadigan is quick to point out that means an additional $6 million from the road bond can be redirected to other parts of the city.
But Gov. Richardson, trying to work a compromise suitable to all sides, has put conditions on releasing the money. And in his typically impatient political style, the governor wants the Paseo conflict reconciled and a plan of action put forth in the next few weeks.
One of the governor's four conditions requires a resolution from the City Council that explicitly states extending Paseo del Norte through the Petroglyphs is official city policy. That would require a 5-4 vote. Councilors Debbie O'Malley, Martin Heinrich, Miguel Gomez and Eric Griego are all firmly opposed to extending Paseo. Councilor Cadigan is joined by the Council's three real estate agents, Sally Mayer, Tina Cummins and Craig Loy, in support of the road. Which leaves Northeast Heights Councilor Brad Winter as the likely deciding vote.
As is often the case when Winter is stuck in the middle of these things, he sponsored a resolution, along with Heinrich, calling for more public input.
"We want to know from the public what they want in the road bond," said Heinrich, "before it faces getting rejected again."
So last week Cadigan, as Council president, obliged. The first hearing already came to pass with little announcement. It was held on Tuesday, April 27, at the Kiva auditorium (after Alibi went to press). The second hearing, not surprisingly will be held at La Cueva High School, which is not only in Winter's district, but also where he works as vice principal. (Council services had not announced the date as of Monday, April 26)
"I feel like this thing has been public hearinged from here to next year," Cadigan said, "but I'm more than willing to have two more."
Meanwhile, Cadigan released a bill last week saying the Paseo extension will be "as protective as can be," while also stating that it is official policy of the city to build it. That bill will be voted on at the Monday, May 3, Council meeting.
Cadigan said the Council has to approve Paseo in order to include it on the 2004 road bond, which must be complete by this summer, adding: "We don't want to let people run out the clock."
Laurie Weahkee, executive director of the Sage Council, a Native American advocacy group opposing the Paseo extension would certainly not mind if Paseo was excluded from this year's road bond money. She called the plan a "fairy tale lie" that will not solve any of the area's traffic problems. "This kind of road building almost seems to make fun of the citizens," said Weahkee. "If they want to build out to Rio Puerco, nobody is being reasonable in their planning. All they are doing is moving the traffic problem around. They are not solving it."
Another of the governor's conditions requires some statement from the City Council proving the road project is legally defensible. As noted, the City Attorney has given the opinion that there are no legal impediments, while the State Historic Preservation District Office has said the project is not valid unless the city first proves there are no reasonable alternatives to building through an archeological district.
As a result of SHPD's position, Gov. Richardson called for a study that considers alternatives to building the Paseo extension, one that might alleviate the traffic disaster and protect the monument all at once.
That research, conducted by the transportation planners at the Mid-region Council of Governments, is due to be published on May 1. (Hard as the Alibi tried, we could not get a preview of the findings. However, we do know that the report promises to offer alternatives to Paseo that have not been considered by the city.)
Since planners are not politicians, it would be reasonable to assume the study will confirm what people living on the Westside already know. That is, while commuters complain about traffic, the real problem is unplanned over-development, and that problem is only fixing to get worse, regardless of whether Paseo extends all the way to the Rio Puerco, or not. Planners have warned for a decade that there are too many houses and not enough jobs in the area. They have warned that the land use patterns are not environmentally of economically sustainable without planned commercial sectors, bike paths, parks and other mixed-use amenities.
The Westside faces other problems as well. For one, folks in other parts of the city, say the Northeast Heights, South Valley or University area, have no reason, financially speaking, to feel sorry for them and; therefore, another defeat of a road bond heavily weighted to the Westside, if it were to occur, should come as no surprise to anyone. For the same reason, the defeat of the 2003 road bond should have come as no surprise, but—because people are funny—it blind-sided Paseo supporters, even folks as politically savvy as the mayor.
What's more, the bottlenecked traffic at both the Paseo river crossing and the I-25/Paseo interchange, according to two, separate traffic planners requesting anonymity, is going to get worse with the current rate of growth whether Paseo is extended or not.
In an effort to help the entire metro area fix these problems, the City Council passed the Planned Growth Strategy Ordinance in 2002. The Westside homebuilders opposed the bill every step of the way, realtor/Councilor Sally Mayer, acting as their proxy, called the proposal "unAmerican," and the mayor—a true friend to the Westside real estate speculators—did his best to derail the bill as well. But thanks to popular demand, it passed by a 7-2, veto-proof margin.
Fast forward two years and civic leaders like Joe Carraro, still frustrated by a lack of planned growth, are talking about Westside secession. So it seems, despite the efforts of the Council, nothing has changed.
Fifteen years ago, Boca Negra Canyon was pristine. But today, the views and sanctity of the area have been compromised by homes in Taylor Ranch and other nearby subdivisions that surround either side of the eastern perimeter.
To offset more imminent sprawl, Councilor Cadigan says he wants to concentrate on expanding the size of the petroglyph park by purchasing adjacent land that is either owned by UNM or privately held. To do this, Cadigan wants the city to issue bonds for open space acquisitions and also look at ways to charge impact fees to developers that would raise money for more public land purchases in the area.
"I really wish the conclusion of this thing was to build the road on eight acres and buy another 80 acres," said Cadigan. "That's what the monument needs—to just get bigger," adding: "You can't wish away 5,000 rooftops."
"People are tired and we don't want this conflict to continue," said Weahkee, summing up what seems to be the consensus of both sides of the struggle.
Then there is Gov. Richardson, a new player in the game, whose input might make all the difference, especially if the MRCOG transportation study provides some fresh ideas. The City Council and mayor, ostensibly, will be looking carefully at the MRCOG findings as well.
However, if the recommendations are swept aside in favor of more political wrangling, then expect to see more protesters facing down bulldozers by the light of the moon.
As for the difficult commute, for the foreseeable future, it comes free with the purchase of that house.