It's a long story, but in the mid-'80s I found myself at a Bastille Day party in the Rio Puerco Valley. We were 15 miles beyond the western edge of town, in the unused headquarters of a worn-out ranch. I found myself talking to a real estate agent, whose eyes shone as he explained how the valley would fill with suburban neighborhoods. The key to his dream was a good road, which he predicted would soon be built. The road's name was the Northwest Loop. When the road came, the ranch would be transformed from isolated range land to prime real estate.
In the minds of real estate speculators, New Mexico was about to experience unprecedented urban growth. Even PNM got into the act, through a land investment subsidiary. Those savvy enough to get in on the ground floor were going to be rich. Not long after that evening on the Rio Puerco 20 years ago, though, the speculative bubble burst. PNM wrote off its losses and went back to focusing on energy. Many of the other players are still stuck with their investments. Still, I remember the enthusiasm of that evening, as my first lesson on the direct relationship between public roads and private development.
Let's fast-forward a couple of decades and just this once, let's put aside petroglyphs, national monuments and Native American religious beliefs. I know they're important, but first let's talk in terms of transportation planning. Extending Paseo through Petroglyph National Monument doesn't make a lot of sense. You don't have to take my word on this point because earlier this summer, the Mid-Region Council of Governments issued a traffic study that says as much. According to the report, extending Unser will help the Westside's traffic problems far more than extending Paseo. The same report states that at the level of the city traffic grid, Paseo's long-term benefits will be "slightly in the negative." In other words, spending 12 million bucks on Paseo is actually worse than doing nothing.
If Paseo won't help the city's transportation needs, why are Mayor Marty Chavez and five members of the City Council so enthusiastic about it? Here you need to understand the real reason for the road. No, it doesn't have to do with easing traffic in the Paradise Hills neighborhood. If the city truly wanted that, it could take the $12 million for Paseo and apply it to Unser, or to the existing road grid in and around that neighborhood. Nor does it have to do with traffic relief for the city as a whole; as the MRCOG report shows, the Paseo extension won't provide any. The real reason is a long-held but rarely mentioned official vision of Albuquerque's future: a city stretching from the base of the Sandias to the Rio Puerco. The next Phoenix, or the next Denver if you prefer—a sprawling megalopolis fed by an intricate system of high-speed roads.
According to the big plan, the city's northwest quadrant will be served by an inner loop arterial—Paseo del Volcán, on the West Mesa—and an outer loop arterial—the Northwest Loop Road, in the Puerco Valley. Those two roads will be mostly north-south, however, and Paseo's critical role is to serve as the only east-west freeway north of I-40. That's why a certain segment of our political leadership so desperately wants to blast Paseo del Norte through the petroglyph escarpment. From the beginning, Paseo has been about only one thing: supersizing Albuquerque. Not because one road can do that, but because it's one link in a chain of roads intended to do that.
The plan I've mentioned isn't a state secret. On Nov. 26, 1997, for example, the Albuquerque Journal published a map showing the various northwest quadrant arterials, as it discussed conflict-of-interest accusations against Pete Domenici and Adele Hundley (part owners of a thousand-acre parcel bisected by the Northwest Loop Road). Still, I can understand the reluctance of city officials to trumpet the big plan. A lot of voters might react unpleasantly if they learn that the real reason they're expected to support Paseo is so Albuquerque can morph like a bacterial culture in a science fiction movie.
To his credit, Marty Chavez has come as close as any pro-Paseo politician to admitting the truth, in a June 2, Albuquerque Journal op-ed piece. Unfortunately, he didn't quite come clean, instead resorting to code (for example: "We have an excellent planned-growth vision of where and how our city ought to grow"). For once, I'd like someone like Chavez to say, "Hey, I want Albuquerque to be one of the big boys some day. Compared to that, what's a few petroglyphs?"
Why do some people want Albuquerque to be huge? Owners of currently isolated rural land are the obvious beneficiaries. On its way to the Rio Puerco, Paseo del Norte will intersect Paseo del Volcán at the center of Quail Ranch, a large chunk of private property west of Paradise Hills. Whoever controls that beat-up rangeland will control all the real estate around the intersection of two eventual freeways. Other holders of currently near-worthless land (including Domenici, Hundley and County Commissioner Tim Cummins) also stand to gain by completion of the northwest quadrant road grid. Still, I don't think the issue can be reduced to who stands to make the most money, or who's donating to whose campaign. Those who support Paseo seem to believe that a hugely bigger Albuquerque will be a hugely better Albuquerque. By that point, we may all be taking sponge baths with bottled water, but it could happen! And oddly enough, the itty-bitty segment of Paseo through Petroglyph National Monument is the key, because without it, the elaborate freeway system will never quite connect.
There you have it: If you're not moved by arguments about preserving petroglyphs or honoring Native American religious beliefs, the Paseo issue boils down to two visions of Albuquerque's future. If you want Albuquerque to be the next Denver or Phoenix (with a tenuous water supply and sinking aquifer) you need to support Paseo, because that's the only solid justification for building the road. If, a few decades from now, you want Albuquerque to be more like—well, Albuquerque—you should oppose Paseo, because its purpose is to make the mid-sized city you know disappear.