The extension of Paseo del Norte and the proposed four-lane restriping of Montaño are two of the most controversial road projects in the city. Even though both of these projects still face legal challenges, they have also recently gained significant victories for their proponents, with Paseo winning in U.S. District Court and Montaño winning a vote of approval by the MRCOG Transportation Board.
Because both projects have been so highly discussed and will have significant and lasting impacts on their neighboring communities, it's useful to take a step away from emotions and look simply at the facts. Will these two roads accomplish what their proponents have promised? And, if so, will they be worth their drawbacks?
Paseo and Montaño are similar in many ways, with their biggest commonality lying perhaps in the fact that both have elicited passionate responses from people in the community, both in support and in opposition. The Paseo extension, for instance, would pass through the Petroglyph National Monument, a fact that has raised serious objections from some Native American groups and others concerned with issues of religion, sacred ground and impacts of the road on the Monument.
Montaño crosses the North Valley over Rio Grande Blvd. and has also raised objections from neighborhoods and others concerned with noise and traffic impacts from the potential lane additions. Another concern in the Montaño debate has been over whether the city has stuck by its original agreement to limit the river crossing to two lanes.
Whether right or wrong, both projects are seen by many Westside residents as good ways to improve Westside traffic congestion.
At the same time, there are a few differences between the projects, such as how, and whether, they would address traffic congestion.
Looking at Paseo, an extension to the west would do nothing to address congestion faced by traffic crossing the river, but it would relieve some congestion in the adjacent Westside neighborhoods by sucking up some of the traffic from competing east-west routes such as Paradise Blvd. Still, when it comes to crossing the river, it adds nothing.
In contrast, the Montaño project has the potential of handling increased traffic volumes across the river since it would add two lanes. Whether or not it would successfully do so depends on how well the intersections at Coors, Fourth Street and Second Street are modified to accommodate a higher volume of traffic. Keep in mind that Montaño already has four lanes at those intersections, which weren't affected by Mayor Chavez' restriping efforts.
If these intersections aren't changed in other ways, adding an extra two lanes to Montaño won't do much to quicken traffic because it will just end up bottlenecking at the intersections, which currently don't have the capacity to handle that amount of traffic. One way the city could try to remedy this problem is by giving Montaño more of the “green” time at those intersections. Still, that would only reduce north-south travel capacity in the North Valley, creating a whole new set of problems.
Unlike the Paseo extension, adding lanes to Montaño would not relieve traffic in the nearby Westside neighborhoods. If more cars use Montaño to cross the river, then more cars will pass through those neighborhoods. If there were any relief to congestion on the Westside, it would be in neighborhoods far removed from Montaño, and it would be of little consequence. Yes, shifting traffic to Montaño Bridge could reduce traffic a bit on other river crossings like Paseo and Alameda, but the amount of diversion from those other river crossings would be small potatoes when compared to the much higher existing traffic volumes on those river crossings.
When it comes down to it, neither project does anything to address the root causes of the problem of traffic congestion on the Westside, the most important of which is the imbalance of land use in that area of the city. There has been and continues to be a concentration on residential development, and a lack of retail, service and industry—a formula that leads to Westside residents crossing the river to get to work and meet their basic needs.
If the city tried to deal with the problem of congestion, not with road expansions, but with mixed-use zoning, it would greatly reduce the flow of traffic over the river. Some city councilors have suggested just this kind of action, but now the city's stuck in a game of catch-up to make up for past development patterns, and such efforts face opposition from many developers who would rather continue with lack-of-planning, get-rich-quick business as usual. One victory the city has earned is the new impact fees legislation, which will have a beneficial effect on bringing more balance to Westside development.
To get back to Paseo, the extension would provide a travel option to the newly developing area around Double Eagle Airport on the existing Paseo del Volcan, which would potentially encourage development of job-producing industries in the airport area. Those jobs would help to provide an employment base on the Westside that would reduce Westside demand for travel across the river.
However, the Paseo del Norte extension to undeveloped lands to the west certainly would be expected to increase the already rapid Westside residential growth rate. Without a clear commitment to achieve better balance between residential and job development, this new access will put even more traffic on the already highly congested intersections on Paseo at Jefferson and I-25.
Lastly, something that is glaringly absent from both projects is a plan or attempt to get more commuters out of cars and into buses or some sort of public transportation; a necessary step in reducing traffic congestion.
So what are we to do about Westside traffic congestion, particularly when crossing the river? It's a problem that will very likely persist and worsen over coming decades, and can't be ignored. But fixing the problem is not simply a matter of building more and bigger bridges. No, this is a symptom of an underlying urban crisis.
Westside growth is expected to continue at a rapid pace, and we will never be able to add enough capacity to our river crossings to serve that growth if we simply go about business as usual. The supply of roads simply will not and cannot keep up with that kind of growing demand. Over the past 20 years, the average weekday traffic crossing the Rio Grande has increased each year by 12,500 vehicles per day. This rate of increase in traffic would eat up two new lanes (one in each direction) of bridges crossing the river every 18 months. But the proposed new lanes on Montaño would be used up in far less than 18 months due to the intersection bottlenecks.
The solution? First, the traffic congestion crossing the river needs to be addressed by going after the root causes of the problem. This means requiring land use development patterns—including balanced land use patterns and mixed-use developments—that allow Westsiders to go about their lives without having to cross the river so often. That means establishing not only mixed land use, but also relying more on development impact fees, better transit, and bicycle and pedestrian passageways.
A good start to this plan would be to add a reversible bus lane to the Montaño river crossing instead of adding regular car lanes. A reversible bus lane would take up less right-of-way than two car lanes, so it wouldn't crowd the existing bike lanes and compromise their safety. Ideally, a bus lane on the river crossing would be part of a much longer bus route including exclusive bus lanes throughout. That route could begin, for example, near the intersection of Unser and Paradise, or better yet, further north, perhaps in Rio Rancho. It could follow Unser to Montaño, take Montaño across the river to Second Street and continue on Second Street to Downtown. Portions of the route would include bus lanes in both directions rather than a reversible lane. To support the bus lane, there would be Park & Ride lots at a few key locations, such as near the intersection of Unser and Paradise.
This bus lane alternative would service some of the same travel demand that would be served by the Paseo extension, without crossing the Petroglyph National Monument. A bus lane alternative was one of several alternatives to the Paseo extension that were analyzed by MRCOG, but were not included in the MRCOG final report on alternatives to extending Paseo del Norte through the Monument. The bus lane alternative seemed promising, but it seems to have been the victim of a political cleaver.
One of the critical questions being asked by lawyers with regard to the extension of Paseo is whether there are any prudent alternatives to that extension. MRCOG concluded that there weren't. All kinds of other roadway alignments were considered to accomplish the connection of Paseo to points directly to the west. But all those alignments addressed the wrong question. The question isn't how to connect the transportation system to some arbitrary destination to the west. The question is how to best serve and shape future travel demand. That is a question that can be debated, but not if reasonable alternatives are taken off the table.
The bulk of the demand on the Westside is going to come from areas northwest of Albuquerque, i.e. Rio Rancho, rather than points directing to the west. But there are arguments that we need to create better connections between the Double Eagle Airport area and the locations to the east in order to support future industrial development at the site. That sounds nice and all, but a problem with that argument is that credibility has been lost, because new Westside access historically has been associated with rapid residential development and not industrial development. Where's the proof that this time anything will be different? Westside areas zoned as industrial or commercial have been changed to residential zoning under pressure from developers interested in one thing: profits. This seems likely to occur again and again in the future.
The pressure from the city's administration to add lanes to the Montaño river crossing—a futile and pathetic project—is testimony to the shallow political concerns of the administration. Indeed, it shines a bright spotlight on the motivations behind the Paseo extension. The mendacity of the Montaño project serving Westside residents is only matched by the illusion that the Paseo project would serve anybody more than it would Westside residential developers.
These turkeys need to be roasted in altogether different ways, such as:
Dedicated bus lanes on Montaño and other roads
Complete Unser and other north-south routes on the Westside
Support and bolster the city's system of development impact fees
Encourage job-based development west of the river and residential development east of the river
Encourage high-density, mixed-use developments
Continue to add bike lanes and improve pedestrian walkways and safety
Respect cultural and neighborhood values
But building more and bigger bridges to support business-as-usual Westside development is unsustainable. It is most unfortunate that the MRCOG Transportation Board has chosen to support adding lanes to Montaño Bridge. Now, why should any neighborhood trust the city or MRCOG in reaching negotiated compromises like the two-lane Montaño Bridge?