The Real Meaning of "No Reasonable Alternatives"
Extending Paseo del Norte is not the best way to give Westside residents the traffic relief they deserve
As someone who spent 22 years doing environmental compliance work, I was surprised by the recent report on Paseo del Norte by the Mid-Region Council of Governments (one of whose members is the city of Albuquerque). In over 20 years in that field, I never saw a public agency come so close to calling a proposed road a foolish idea. Still, the report contains a giant escape hatch for supporters of extending Paseo del Norte through the petroglyph monument. One page of the report states, "there are no reasonable alternatives to the currently planned alignment for the Paseo del Norte extension." Even Gov. Bill Richardson seized on this wording, in his Albuquerque Journal op-ed piece of July 5.
But what does it mean that there are "no reasonable alternatives?" This isn't an abstract question; the coming legal battles over the road may turn on the word "alternative." It's also an important issue for Albuquerque's voters, who must decide whether to support or oppose Paseo in this fall's bond election.
As used in the MRCOG report, "no reasonable alternatives" means that there's only one place to build the Paseo extension. That's because years ago, the original alignment for the road was Paradise Boulevard, but the local neighborhood waged a successful NIMBY ("not in my back yard") campaign to shift the alignment away from them. What's left of the Paradise Boulevard corridor is definitely unsuited for a limited-access freeway. Going around the north end of the neighborhood was once an option, but the city rejected it during the original Paseo del Norte environmental process and since then, the necessary empty space has filled. Punching through farther south would cause even more problems for the Shenandoah neighborhood than the current alignment, and would require the city to trespass on the national monument. So, if you want to build an east-west highway to alleviate Westside traffic, there is no alternative to building it through the Petroglyph escarpment.
However, this doesn't mean that there are no alternatives to building the road. By way of analogy, suppose you want to add another runway at the Albuquerque Sunport. Logically, there's only one place to add the runway, which is at the airport, right? Thus, there's "no reasonable alternative" to building the runway there. But do we need another runway at the airport? Obviously not. That provides us with a "reasonable alternative" to building the extra runway, which is to not build it and save the public a wad of money.
The National Environmental Policy Act works in just this way. Every environmental impact statement prepared under NEPA must consider multiple alternatives, including the "no-build" alternative. How does Paseo fare, under NEPA standards? Very poorly.
According to the MRCOG report, the long-term, city-level traffic relief from the Paseo extension will be "slightly in the negative." If not building Paseo is slightly better than building it, under NEPA an obvious alternative to select is "no build." And there are at least three other alternatives that are attractive under NEPA: 1) extend Unser instead; 2) use the $12 million Paseo would cost to upgrade the existing road grid; 3) do options one and two at the same time.
NEPA is a federal law, so does it apply to the Paseo extension? Paseo supporters, such as Mayor Martin Chavez, think not, as long as the city uses its own funds, on its own land. I'm not sure this opinion is correct, but that's for the courts to decide. Most importantly, Alibi readers should know that under the environmental standards used at the federal level, there are in fact "alternatives" to building Paseo—and the city is avoiding consideration of those alternatives.
One state law actually imposes a higher standard than NEPA for registered cultural properties such as the petroglyph escarpment. With the toothy name "New Mexico Prehistoric and Historic Sites Preservation Act," the law prohibits the use of state or local public funds to damage a registered property unless there is "no feasible and prudent alternative."
Under this law, the city can't spend a dime to move dirt on the Paseo extension unless there's no other practical way to move traffic around the Westside. If Paseo is the best way to move that traffic, it doesn't matter, as long as there is some other way to accomplish the same thing. And if Paseo isn't the best way to move the traffic, which is what the MRCOG report indicates, it's dead on the launching pad.
Needless to say, Paseo supporters at City Hall are going to do everything in their power to avoid being subjected to that law. Perhaps it will; a courtroom can be an unpredictable place. But again, my point is to show how "alternative" means different things in different contexts.
So let's get down to the moment of truth: next November, when (according to the mayor's plan) Albuquerque's voters will again have to choose between allowing the Paseo extension to be built or shooting down the entire street bond. If there is truly "no alternative" to building Paseo, anyone who supports good roads ought to vote for Paseo. If there are alternatives, it's possible to support good roads and be against Paseo. As someone who played on the other side of the net for years, I can tell Albuquerque's voters that the "no reasonable alternative" statement in the MRCOG report doesn't mean that there are no reasonable alternatives to building Paseo.
Confused? I'm not surprised, so I'll run through it one last time. There's only one place to build the Paseo extension—if you insist on building it—but you don't have to insist on building it. The existing evidence indicates that there are other, better ways, to give Westside residents the traffic relief they deserve.
David Phillips is a Registered Professional Archaeologist with experience working in environmental compliance. Much of his work involved transportation projects, including in New Mexico.