Albuquerque, like many cities, is looking at bus rapid transit as a cost-effective way to improve mobility and create a more walkable city. Its BRT plan calls for frequent service on a center-running bus lane along Central Avenue, the city’s busiest bus route, which passes through the heart of downtown.
The city has applied for funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Smarts program. With $80 million in federal funds matched by $20 million in local funds, service could begin in 2017.
But the local conversation about the project has been hijacked by outside groups with an anti-transit agenda. The most outspoken critics are a couple of men with financial ties to — are you ready? — the Koch brothers, fitting a pattern recently seen in Nashville, Boston, and a lot of other places.
The first is Paul Gessing from the Rio Grande Foundation, the group leading organized opposition to the project. The Rio Grande Foundation is part of the State Policy Network, which the Center for Media and Democracy describes as “mini-Heritage Foundations” that are “major drivers of the right-wing, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-backed corporate agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders.”
Naturally, the Rio Grande Foundation trotted out professional transit basher Randall O’Toole — of the Koch-backed Cato Institute — who tweaked his anti-rail road show in this case to criticize the bus plan.
In the Albuquerque Journal, O’Toole said “transit will never be important in Albuquerque because Albuquerque jobs and residences are too spread out,” pointing out that only 1.75 percent of the city uses transit to get to work. (This actually sounds like a great argument for improving bus service as a means to make the city more walkable and draw more riders, but we digress). The city pointed out in its rebuttal that about 5 to 9 percent of the people living around the project rely on transit. The three bus routes serving the corridor carry about 10,000 passengers a day, or 44 percent of system ridership. Buses are frequently overcrowded and delayed during peak hours.
Despite the cartoonishness of O’Toole’s arguments, he and Gussing are dominating the debate right now, says Dan Majewski of Urban ABQ, which represents downtown residents. A group of business owners along the corridor concerned with the removal of parking spaces and the disruption caused by construction are now aligning with the Rio Grande Foundation.
“What are the legitimate concerns of the small businesses and what are the basically anti-transit concerns that are coming from outside the city?” Majewski said. “It’s really hard to distinguish what is what.”
Even members of Urban ABQ have some concerns about the proposal, Majewski said. But they think the pros and cons should be discussed in an atmosphere that’s not tainted by O’Toole’s brand of propaganda.
The project is modeled after successful bus rapid transit projects like Cleveland’s Healthline, which has been credited with spurring billions of dollars in development along its route. Majewski said one of the more attractive elements of the project is that it will result in a road diet on Central, which is the most dangerous street for pedestrians in Albuquerque (which is one of the most dangerous cities for walking in the country).
Writing in the Albuquerque Journal, columnist Winthrop Quigley touched on a larger issue: the need to rethink transportation in the city and create spaces in Albuquerque that bring people together:
Our city is a collection of mostly nondescript subdivisions connected by monotonous commercial strips, a concrete desert of very wide streets and hectares of parking lots. Officials like Mayor Richard J. Berry and Councilor Isaac Benton hope to capitalize on some of our distinctive neighborhoods to create an urban environment that will attract the people who will help create our city’s next economy.
It would be a shame if the discussion Albuquerque residents want to have about their future gets drowned out by hired guns from out of town.