First term City Councilor Debbie O'Malley got a lesson in local politics recently when Mayor Martin Chavez announced his plan to increase traffic flow on a section of Montaño.
The mayor held a late afternoon press conference on Friday, Dec. 10, announcing his plan to widen sections of the road from two lanes to four in an effort to accommodate Westside commuters, especially now that construction on the Coors and I-40 interchange will cause even greater delays beginning in January.
Although the road runs through Councilor O'Malley's district, the mayor appeared at the press conference with Westside Councilor Michael Cadigan, but had never formally discussed the plan with O'Malley.
"I was speechless and disappointed to hear about (the mayor's plan)," said O'Malley. "I had no idea he was going to move forward with it the next day."
Of course, restriping Montaño opens old wounds for North Valley residents who opposed the Montaño Bridge's construction for years leading up to its completion in 1998. And within hours after the mayor's announcement, an area resident, John Sparks, had his lawyer working on a complaint, which was delivered by Sparks and O'Malley to the home of district Judge Teresa Baca by 10 p.m.
The judge issued a restraining order before midnight and local residents then held a vigil near the bridge until Saturday morning, Dec. 11, with restraining orders in hand in case a city work crew showed up.
According to Ed Adams, the director of city outlay projects, the restriping was scheduled to begin Saturday, Dec. 11, after sunrise, but was suspended when he received notice of the restraining order.
Larry Abraham, mayor of Los Ranchos, appeared at a ribbon cutting ceremony on Dec. 11 and hand-delivered the restraining order to Mayor Chavez, according to Mr. Sparks.
To understand O'Malley's recent lesson in local politics, you need to know a bit of the bridge's history.
When the village of Los Ranchos sued the city of Albuquerque to stop the bridge from being built back in the mid-'90s, the City Council offered a compromise resolution, saying the bridge would be forever limited to two lanes in exchange for the lawsuit being dropped. Los Ranchos refused the deal, then lost the lawsuit.
Several City Council resolutions were passed in an effort to placate embittered North Valley residents, who didn't want the traffic, noise, air pollution or damage to the Bosque resulting from the new bridge. One proposal promised to upgrade the intersections at Montaño and Second Street, and Montaño and Fourth Street, which still hasn't happened.
What's more, you might recall the Universe Boulevard construction saga that played out in September 2002, when bulldozers encountered protesters lying in the dirt in the middle of the night. Mayor Chavez and Sandia Properties developer Bob Murphy wanted the road built; the Sage Council, an environmental and indigenous rights organization, opposed the idea. Construction began under cover of the night, but the protesters caught wind of it, the media arrived and the battle was on. After imminent legal wrangling, the protesters lost their suit to stop the project, and the road was eventually financed and completed by developers.
Following the Universe imbroglio, the City Council amended an ordinance to require that notification of all road construction projects be given to neighborhood associations within one mile of the project.
Despite this ordinance, City Councilor Debbie O'Malley was not consulted by the mayor's office about the Montaño project. Instead, the mayor worked exclusively with Councilor Michael Cadigan on a comprehensive plan to address Westside congestion, which included widening Montaño among other projects.
"I don't think it was a construction project. The administration's position and my position to restripe to four lanes has been public knowledge for a long time," said Cadigan, adding: "Perhaps the exact timing of restriping was unknown to some people."
Councilor O'Malley, however, clearly opposed widening Montaño when she ran for office and said she has worked with the North Valley Neighborhood Coalition and Fourth Street Intersection Improvement Coalition for years to address area traffic problems.
So after Sparks and his attorney contacted O'Malley, the parties collectively managed to stall the project until a court hearing was scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 14, in front of Judge Baca.
Following the hearing, the judge ruled that the City Council must determine whether substantial progress on other prioritized road projects—such as Golf Course Road, the Coors and I-40 interchange and the Fourth Street and Montaño intersection—should be addressed before restriping Montaño to four lanes.
The mayor promptly issued a brief statement that said: "I will certainly respect the court's ruling. At the same time, I will work with Council President Michael Cadigan to change the laws the judge based her decision upon. I continue to believe and will work to expand Montaño Bridge to four lanes because it is essential to our city's infrastructure and public safety."
Interestingly, the mayor's plan was to restripe parts of Montaño east of the river, but according to Ed Adams, it excluded the bridge.
The next night, Wednesday, Dec. 15, Brad Winter was elected Council president. Winter, often times a deciding vote when controversial issues face the council, said he would work toward a compromise among North Valley residents and commuters, and expressed dismay that yet another fight was brewing over Montaño Bridge.
Again, O'Malley's name was conspicuously absent from the mayor's statement, even though her district's constituents are arguably most affected by the mayor's policy. The councilor said she wasn't surprised by the mayor's selectivity.
"He doesn't care about a practical solution," said O'Malley. "He just wants a political solution." (Mayor Chavez was unavailable for comment.)
O'Malley introduced a resolution at the Council meeting on Monday, Dec. 20, calling for a transportation study to determine if adding a single, reversible lane to Montaño that would be utilized during rush hour would be an effective compromise.
"Nobody has looked at that," said O'Malley. "The challenge will be making sure residents are able to get on and off Montaño. Folks have difficulty crossing one lane of traffic, let alone two."
Cadigan said he was "pleasantly surprised" at O'Malley's willingness to consider some alternative to a traffic problem he described as "otherwise a total mess."
As to why the mayor would meet with him and choose to leave O'Malley out of the loop, Cadigan said: "I don't know that they have the kind of relationship where they have meetings or not."