On Assignment: After Art

On The Road To Rapid Transit In Albuquerque

August March
11 min read
ART at stop
(Eric Williams Photography)
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If you hear a sudden whoosh on the left side of your car when you’re piloting that old jalopy up or down Central Avenue between Coors and Louisiana, it is most likely emanating from a passing ART bus.

The new Albuquerque Rapid Transit system, bugs and all, was put into service late last year. Moreover, the project has been in the news for more than four years. Years of thinking and planning came before that.

But the question—and certainly given the history, scope and initial outcome of the project, it’s an important one to ask—is how has the ART project in its current incarnation (up and running with various successes and challenges) affected business up and down its route along Central Avenue?

To find out, I brushed up on its ART history, read about the plan’s development under the Berry administration, took a ride on the fabled line and, most importantly, asked business owners, citizens and leaders how it has affected them economically lately and most of all, in terms of how they imagine the future of this city.


A quick tour through the history books, newspaper articles and city press releases reveals the following information about a rapid transit system now making its way through some of Burque’s most important economic areas on historic Route 66.

In 2004 the city saw the implementation of Rapid Ride, a fast bus line on Central that was supposed to be the precursor for a light rail system the city was then considering for Central Avenue. When that plan became economically and practically cumbersome, city officials began studying alternatives.

In 2011, the City of Albuquerque
published a feasibility study into a program that would oversee the development of a “Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plan for the Central Avenue Corridor from 98th Street to Tramway Boulevard.”

The project, outlined in the document by InfraConsult LLC—now part of
HDR—analyzed potential impacts of such a project and the planning of the project itself, and looked at three areas that were determined by the report’s author to represent the scope of services of such a rapid transit project. Those areas included background information about similar projects in Albuquerque, an evaluation of the Central Avenue corridor that such buses would run through and identification of a minimum operating segment of that corridor, initially defined as being on Central Avenue between Unser Boulevard SW and Tramway Boulevard NE.

The folks who penned this study first looked at two earlier public transit studies that the city reviewed in 2006; one was a rapid transit project alternatives analysis and the other was the now abandoned Modern Streetcar Project.

The report then resolves upon analysis of existing transit and traffic information about Central Avenue as well as the standard physical dimensions needed to run buses down the middle of Central Avenue.

At no time does the study discuss or approach the economic impact that such a system would have on the urban neighborhoods and retail areas where such a bus project would be centered.

After the report was deeply studied by city officials, an application for federal funding was made early in the year 2014, at the height of the Berry administration’s aegis and influence over Albuquerque politics and policy.

On Feb. 9, 2016,
the city announced that, “Mayor Richard J. Berry received the news that the Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) has received recommendation of a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Small Starts Capital Grant to construct ART from Coors Boulevard to Louisiana Boulevard along the Central Avenue Corridor. When approved through the congressional budget process, the grant, along with money set aside by the City, gives the project more than $100 million for construction and beautification with anticipated completion in the fall of 2017.”

Berry was very pleased with the outcome of the rapid transit project’s efforts and was quoted as saying, “Over the past three years, Albuquerque has undergone a very intentional process to study and garner feedback from the community on this revolutionary project,” said Mayor Richard J. Berry. “I am extremely pleased that the President has recognized this effort and the importance of this project by including Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) in his budget. I believe ART will set the standard for the nation for THE most effective and state-of-the-art Bus Rapid Transit system.”

In the same press release, Bradbury Stamm, a local construction firm with deep ties to Mayor Berry, was named as the primary contractor for the project and construction soon commenced on the mayor’s dream project.

Protests ensued. A lawsuit to stop ART was put forth but also dismissed in mid-2016. Several planning and communications meetings held with the public under city auspices demonstrated the lack of public support the project had garnered, especially among business owners in the proposed ART corridor. Nonetheless, work on ART began in earnest in October 2016.

Economic Impact

By the time construction on the project began with the median and landscaping removal along the proposed ART route, the local media began investigating the impact that construction was having on local businesses along the route.

In early April of 2017, reporter Andres Del Aguila of the
Daily Lobo reported on this previously unreckoned with aspect of the new rapid transit bus system. Though his report was limited to querying businesses in the university district, it’s a telling document that reveals the economic problems that the construction of the ART project would cause local businesses.

During ART’s construction, Del Aguila reported that Gyros, a local restaurant located near the ART bus stop on Central and Cornell, had experienced a 16 percent drop in business; according to the same reporter, Kelly’s Brew Pub up the street in Nob Hill near another ART stop, experienced a precipitous decline of 25 percent in daily business.

Earlier that year, the city’s
daily paper of record reported on similar issues. Jessica Dyer reported on one business near Old Town where the owner complained that ART construction had caused his business, a car wash, to suffer a decline of about $5,000 per month.

In 2018,
Alibi reporter Carolyn Carlson reported that “ART just won’t go away.” She then described one West Central restaurant owner’s response to the ongoing issue, writing “One West Central Avenue restaurant owner made it clear how they feel about the ART project. The proprietor posted a sign in its parking lot that says ART parking is not allowed. We took that to mean they did not want folks parking their cars in their lot to jump on the new buses to go to another part of town while their car gums up their always popular parking lot.”

Dr. Domingo Valles, who has a dental practice along the ART route on Edith and Central, was clear in his concerns about ART, past and present, saying, “The initial construction of the ART project, in addition to the plumbing issues that were prevalent for a good year to a year and a half, severely injured our business and the surrounding businesses, to the point that we were very afraid for some time that we might go belly up. Following the completion of the ART project, we have not noted any change, either an increase or a decrease, in clientele. But it has all finally stabilized.”

ART Today

To find out more about how ART, now running up and down Central Avenue, is continuing to affect local businesses and citizens in general,
Weekly Alibi took to the streets of Burque with an open mind and a pen in hand.

After all, it must be admitted that the Keller administration has done much to ameliorate the issue, from re-thinking the original concept for electric buses to promoting the project as a way to revitalize an important part of the city.

Yet, some local business owners feel that ART continues to be responsible for a decline in their business, while others feel quite the opposite.
Weekly Alibi found that the ART discussion among businesses along the buses’ route was about 50 percent in favor and 50 percent against.

When we walked by the two Greek restaurants whose owners were interviewed by the
Daily Lobo nearly 3 years ago, both were still open for business and seemingly thriving. Kelly’s Brew Pub was filled up for lunch, too. A waitress our reporter briefly spoke with—who did not want to be named without her boss’ permission—said things were “pretty much normal now, except for the occasional pedestrian incident.”

Meanwhile up the road a bit, Lee, a spokesperson for Shogun Japanese Restaurant in Nob Hill told
Weekly Alibi that there has been such a slowdown that she has had to curtail her advertising budget to accommodate the drop in revenue caused by ART. Lee told folks at the Weekly Alibi that since the ART buses started running, she’s dropped 20 to 30 tables per day. She says she needs to fill at least 70 tables per day just to meet expenses.

“It’s ART,” Lee said, continuing, “All the businesses opening and closing [in Nob Hill] are not good for the business community.”

Conversely, City Councilor Pat Davis, whose district includes much of the ART route, told
Weekly Alibi, “Although I was not on the Council when they approved the plan, we’ve all worked hard to move past the missteps and focus on what works. Today, the results speak for themselves: ART ridership is almost double early projections, more than 20 new businesses (including formerly closed ones that returned) have opened and more than 200 new condos units are going up. The road to get here was horrible, but Central is the place we want to be again and that’s good for everyone.”

Some business owners are more measured in their praise for something that they ultimately believe is here to stay. John Gonzales, owner of 2G’s Bistro in East Downtown, told this reporter, “I own this property and the restaurant that was here before wasn’t doing well and folded because of ART. They broke their lease and left. I had a classic spot, but I knew nobody was going to lease it during ART construction. We opened right in the middle of construction. There was a dump truck parked in front of the business for two weeks. There was no sidewalk. I can see why it took down businesses.”

But Gonzales also remains optimistic, saying, “Being the owner, I was able to keep overhead low and we just rode it out. End result: We have nine more parking spots in the area, Central is a single lane in each direction in this area, which prevents high-speed, 70 mile per hour traffic. The bus lanes are quite helpful and I feel safer crossing the street now. The sidewalks are wider and the lighting is much better at night. I think the end result is pretty positive. The political way they went about doing the whole stretch of Central at the same time was probably a bad idea though.”

Gonzales concluded that if the city added the Sunport to the ART route, it would be a huge economic benefit to the city, adding more hotels and tourists—and hence more revenue—to the mix.

Before putting the done mark on this latest
Alibi inquiry, our reporter phoned up City Councilor, ART advocate and new urbanist Isaac Benton for his take on things. He said, “ART still requires considerable fine tuning, and the City is committed to that. Even as-is, the system provides many advantages such as much more frequent and predictable service, better security (with well-lit, visible stations, more security cameras and officers), new public utility infrastructure and street lighting along the route (useful whether or not you ride the bus), more convenience for bikes onboard, rapid-response pedestrian crossings at each station (useful whether or not you ride the bus), and an expandable system easily adaptable to evolving transit vehicle technology. The new (and future) dedicated river crossings for transit are key to the future viability of the West Side as its population continues to grow.”

Like it not, it looks like the next bus has already arrived.
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