May 27 - Jun 2, 2004 
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Council Watch

Death by Asphalt

By Laura Sanchez
While the MRCOG report has been spun by the local press as supporting Paseo, a careful read reveals the government agency actually thinks the extension is a bad idea. Focusing on Unser would be a better plan.
While the MRCOG report has been spun by the local press as supporting Paseo, a careful read reveals the government agency actually thinks the extension is a bad idea. Focusing on Unser would be a better plan.

The May 17 council meeting passed legislation revamping the Police Oversight Commission, updating a property wall ordinance, and authorizing budgets, bonds and goals. Chief Financial Officer Gail Reese's report on negotiations with developers of a proposed downtown arena raised serious questions about the eventual cost of the project. But the gut-wrenching, crowd-drawing issue at the seven-hour meeting was the proposed Paseo del Norte extension through the Petroglyph National Monument.

Send your comments about the City Council to laura@alibi.com.

Issue

Gov. Bill Richardson's promise of $3.3 million for extending Paseo del Norte Boulevard through the Petroglyph Monument included a requirement that the City Council approve the project. Also required are a guarantee of no legal liability and a study of alternatives to building the controversial road through a site sacred to Native Americans.

Chris Blewett, director of Transportation and Planning Services for the Mid-Region Council of Governments appeared before the Council to answer questions about the transportation alternatives study completed early in May. Councilor Martin Heinrich asked Blewett which action would be more effective in dealing with the Westside's traffic problems, completing Unser Boulevard or extending Paseo del Norte.

Blewett avoided a direct reply, saying that the plan to extend Paseo through the petroglyphs didn't offer a lot of "congestion relief, particularly in the long term." Blewett said the extension would relieve parallel arterials for a short term, but relief "would be gobbled up downstream," particularly at the Paseo and Jefferson intersections with I-25. Heinrich thanked him for "very delicately answering these questions."

The sponsor of the bill, Council President Michael Cadigan, asked if extending both Paseo and Unser would be more effective than extending Unser alone. Blewett said yes. Cadigan noted that road-blocking accidents in the area left residents with no alternate routes.

Councilor Eric Griego said that he, Heinrich, Councilors Debbie O'Malley and Miguel Gomez had been working on alternate solutions to congestion, including expediting the Coors/I-40 upgrade, prioritizing the completion of Unser, creating Westside park and ride facilities, converting Montaño to an express crossing, designating express bus lanes, and implementing land use plans that better match jobs and housing.

Council's Take

Twelve speakers opposed the extension and nine supported it.

Supporters said the city should grab the $3.3 million in state funds, that Ventana Ranch had over 3,000 suffering commuter families, and that neighborhood streets were carrying too much traffic.

Opponents said citizen input had been ignored, litigation would ensue, and Sally Mayer, Craig Loy and Tina Cummins, the three realtor-councilors, should recuse themselves. Benishi Albert of the Sage Council said the road would destroy 50 petroglyphs, the road's estimated cost had gone from $12.5 million to $23 million and, that contrary to statements by State Senator Joe Carraro and Mayor Martin Chavez, all New Mexico Native American groups opposed the road.

Gomez said the monument contains artifacts dating back 5,000 years. Griego read a list of 25 Native American groups, including the National Congress of American Indians, that opposed the road. O'Malley, mentioning her Mescalero Apache ancestors, said Native Americans had a different view of land: "It's not real estate, it's not a commodity to be traded." Then Winter, the swing vote, said he would support the road because Westsiders "deserve what everybody else has."

Griego moved an amendment to acknowledge that Native American groups opposed the construction. Councilor Craig Loy took that "as an insult to myself." The amendment failed 5-4, Griego, Gomez, O'Malley and Heinrich supporting.

Gomez proposed an updated environmental impact study. Cadigan said the Paseo extension would receive no federal funds and thus does not require an EIS. The same councilors voted down that amendment 5-4.

O'Malley moved an amendment to notify neighbors before dynamiting began. Griego said he wouldn't support the amendment because it conceded the road would be built. The amendment failed 6-3, O'Malley, Gomez and Heinrich supporting. The bill supporting the road extension passed 5-4.

Reporter's Take

The Paseo extension reminds me of President George W. FUBAR's Medicare bill: It won't deliver what it seems to promise; it'll cost far more than we think; and it's sold as "better than nothing."

I used to think, well, those poor Westsiders didn't realize they got lower home prices because the infrastructure was so lousy, but let's pay the tab for what they saved on house payments so they won't sit in traffic jams turning into carne seca. But a close reading of the report indicates the Paseo extension will only relieve congestion in the immediate vicinity for about five years.

In other words, we're degrading a unique treasure and paying almost $20 million for a giant, temporary, asphalt Band-aid.

Meanwhile, local media characterized the MRCOG report as concluding there is "no reasonable alternative to extending Paseo through the petroglyphs!" What the report actually says is that there are no reasonable alternate routes specifically for building a connecting road from the current Paseo dead end to Unser. It also says the Paseo extension would shave less than a minute off travel time from Ventana Ranch to Downtown. But the report's overall conclusions are quite different.

If only one road is built, completing Unser is a more effective long-term solution. Even better is a combination of upgraded public transportation and Intelligent Transportation System software, which would expedite traffic to the point of saving 17 times its cost. It's really doubtful the Paseo extension will solve Westside commuting problems. The report on this complex problem can't really be capsulized accurately. If you're affected by the proposed road, you ought to read it yourself, located online at www.mrcog-nm.gov.

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