To Build or Not to Build?
Proponents of the extension of Paseo del Norte through the Petroglyphs argue that a recent report by the Mid Region Council of Governments (MRCOG) supports the project. Road backers claimed the study found no reasonable alternatives to the planned alignment, and stated that the study "puts to rest the idea that the city has failed to look at alternatives."
The study was touted by Paseo advocates as one of the final steps toward obtaining funding for the extension. Finally, here was the proof they were waiting for—evidence that a freeway through a sacred national monument is the only alternative to traffic congestion on Albuquerque's Westside. Proof? Well, not exactly ...
Having actually read the entire report—instead of just skimming a few phrases from its "Findings" section—we have discovered something else. Namely, that the study actually reaches conclusions that are nearly the opposite of what the Paseo advocates have claimed them to be. Here are just a few examples:
Travel conditions will deteriorate equally whether the Paseo extension is built or not. While the extension may reduce travel times between bottlenecks, the severity of congestion at bottlenecks will increase. The Paseo extension will contribute to increased delay on the bridges across the Rio Grande.
If our region is going to spend scarce tax dollars wisely, then focusing on Unser rather than Paseo is a smarter strategy.
The Paseo extension would be the only high-speed, 65 to70 mph "limited access principle arterial" on the Westside. Since no other road could function in this way with or without improvements, this leads naturally to the report's finding that "no reasonable alternatives" exist if this function is to be met. However, this does not mean that the Paseo extension is desirable according to many other criteria.
The impression left by the Paseo advocates is that building the road will "solve" the Westside congestion problem once and for all. The study actually concludes something entirely different—i.e., that the Westside will continue to experience heavy congestion whether the Paseo extension is built or not.
One additional problem the MRCOG study refers to is that adding a high-speed arterial such as this will serve to open up large areas of the West Mesa to new suburban development, increasing traffic in the long run. But this phenomenon of "induced demand" was not adequately studied given the brief time-frame and limited scope of the report.
Earlier this year Gov. Richardson established four conditions that he wanted to see met before releasing state funds for part of the project. In particular, the governor called for the "creation of a true multimodal transportation plan—including fair and thorough analysis of the alternatives to the construction of the Paseo extension—that will provide transportation choices for Westside residents." The MRCOG report clearly doesn't meet this condition. The study does not constitute anything close to a complete and thorough analysis of all of the reasonable alternatives to Paseo, as acknowledged by the report itself. The governor's condition that a plan exist to enhance the protection of the Petroglyph National Monument has also not been met.
So, what should Albuquerque do to address its Westside traffic problems? Even the most aggressive road building program will be inadequate if past and projected land use trends continue. The only real long-term alternative is to develop coordinated changes in land use patterns, public transit services and roadway management strategies. Such changes are envisioned by the city-approved Planned Growth Strategy and Centers and Corridors plan, but the mechanisms haven't yet been put in place to implement them. Rather than building a new road, that is where the emphasis is now needed.
The end results of such a balanced land-use and transportation alternative would be to improve quality of life, provide transportation choices and create a viable job market that benefits both Albuquerque's Westside and the entire city and region.