The mayor plans to re-stripe Montaño to four lanes, but some say the project could do more harm than good
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, October 27, 2005
There may not be a single road in Albuquerque that has been more controversial than Montaño. Be it neighborhood angst over the laying down of the very road itself and the construction of Montaño Bridge, or protesters lying in the dirt to keep bulldozers at bay when a developer came to build Universe Boulevard, every time the city announces plans to change the corridor in some way, neighborhood residents and historic-preservation groups have been there to oppose it. Now, it seems as though Montaño, that road with a knack for stirring up trouble, is at it again. Only this time, it's getting folks all riled up over a brand new paint job.
The latest Montaño embroilment began late last year, when Mayor Martin Chavez announced on Dec. 10 at a press conference that he aimed to re-stripe the currently two-lane road from Second Street to Coors to four lanes to help ease severe traffic congestion for commuters going to and from the Westside (See Newscity, “Montaño Proposal Opens Old Wounds,” Dec. 23-29, 2004).
Immediately, things got off to a rocky start. The mayor neglected to inform City Councilor Debbie O'Malley about his plans, despite the fact that the road runs through her district. Instead, Chavez appeared at the conference with Westside City Councilor Michael Cadigan, whose constituents are also affected by congestion on Montaño. Construction was slated for the following day.
The city had failed to adhere to several protocols required for such a project, such as getting approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG), the State Historic-Preservation Office and the City Council. Many area residents were also concerned about implications of increasing vehicular capacity on the road, such as impacts to wildlife, bicyclists and residences whose driveways exit onto Montaño. For these reasons, O'Malley worked hurriedly with area resident John Sparks to deliver a complaint to Judge Teresa Baca that evening.
The complaint resulted in the issuance of a restraining order that was hand-delivered to Chavez by Larry Abraham, the mayor of Los Ranchos, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony the next day. The restraining order was subsequently turned into an injunction that prohibited construction on Montaño until approval had been met by the required governmental bodies and the Council determined that substantial progress was made on other prioritized road projects—such as the Coors and I-40 interchange, Golf Course Road and the Fourth Street and Montaño intersection.
According to Councilor Cadigan, the Council has ruled that significant progress on the aforementioned road projects has been made, as Coors and I-40 is slated for completion in another 12 months and the money for both the Fourth Street and Montaño and Second Street and Montaño intersections has been approved. Cadigan said once Coors and I-40 is finished, work will begin on the Montaño intersections.
Currently, the city is waiting for a court hearing to dissolve the injunction. Yet, even if they are successful and the injunction is dissolved, the city will still need to be granted a permit for the project from the Army Corps of Engineers, and will need approval from MRCOG and the State Historic-Preservation Office. Presently, there is no estimate on when any decisions will be made.
Switching Into Fourth
Now, even though it may seem as though tensions around the project are starting to quell, other conflicts are arising. With the recent release of two studies on the Montaño corridor, one completed by an engineering firm contracted by the city and the other completed by an independent contractor hired by the City Council, accusations of political influence over the results of the studies are creeping into the discussion.
First, a little background. Shortly after the mayor's press conference and the subsequent injunction last December, Councilor O'Malley introduced a resolution to the Council that called for an outside, independent traffic study to determine whether adding a single, reversible HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane would be as effective as the mayor's plan to add four general purpose lanes. Her bill was passed by the Council, and Hall Planning & Engineering, Inc., a Florida-based company, was hired.
“I thought it was important to get someone from out of state, who has no other contracts with the state and who is not subject to political pressure,” said O'Malley.
The consultant previously hired by the city to conduct a traffic study of the corridor is Wilson & Company, an Albuquerque-based engineering firm that has had contracts with the city in the past and, according to the city's Chief Operating Officer Ed Adams, will likely be involved in future city projects as well.
Both studies were released earlier this month and have come to diametrically opposed solutions. Wilson's study recommends putting in four general-purpose lanes, per the mayor's plan, while Hall's study recommends installing two general-purpose lanes and one reversible HOV lane, which would run down the center of Montaño.
The two reports were supposed to merge into one, but, according to O'Malley, due to diverse views between the firms and, according to the city's Adams, belatedness on the part of Hall, at the last minute it was decided that two separate reports would be issued instead.
Now that the reports are out things are getting as heated as ever, as O'Malley said that she is suspicious of Wilson's report, and believes its recommendation was based on political influence by the mayor. She said the firm's initial draft report and final report, which came out within two days of each other, show markedly different results.
Wilson's draft report recommends two alternatives for construction on Montaño, one being four general-purpose lanes and the other being two general-purpose lanes and two HOV lanes. The draft also lists a rating system that weighs the two alternatives, along with Hall's recommendation, based on factors like cost, safety and access. In the final report, only the four general-purpose lanes are recommended, and the rating system is absent. O'Malley said she believes Wilson was influenced by the mayor's office to change its final recommendation to agree with his previous plan.
All questions for Wilson were directed toward the city. Adams denied the accusation that the administration had any influence over the report. “If someone's [saying] that anyone asked Wilson to change their recommendation, that's just garbage,” said Adams. He added that no drafts were ever “issued,” but rather, several drafts had been circulated before the final report came out, but were never intended to be viewed as representative of final recommendations. “A draft is only a shell or skeleton of a report,” he said.
But O'Malley is not convinced. “[The mayor] is looking for a political solution; I'm looking for a practical solution,” she said.
Still, Cadigan and Adams only redirected O'Malley's sentiments, and accused her accusations of being political. “This has become less about engineering and more about politics,” said Cadigan.
The differences between Wilson's and Hall's recommendations are dramatic. Installing four general-purpose lanes, as Wilson suggests, would involve a minimal amount of construction, as it would merely include repainting the already-wide road to four lanes. The cost of the project is also minimal, totaling at an estimated $20,000.
However, there are drawbacks to this option. According to Mark Sprick, transportation planning services manager with MRCOG, in a recent analysis that MRCOG performed this last spring it was found that re-striping Montaño to four lanes would actually make traffic congestion worse.
“The intersections [along the proposed corridor] are at capacity. The best we can tell, all that will happen [if Montaño is re-striped to four lanes] is there will be two lanes of backed up traffic in the morning and evening instead of one.”
Sprick said the only benefit to re-striping to four lanes is that Montaño might then draw some traffic away from Paseo del Norte and Alameda. “But within six months to a year [that traffic] will filter back in due to the growth they have out there; and then you've got double the amount of traffic on Montaño.”
Sprick said the project would also affect side streets and cul de sacs that exit onto Montaño. “It's easier to get across one backed up lane than two,” he said. Also, he said models showed that there would likely be a steady stream of traffic instead of the more intermittent traffic groupings that now exist, which means there would be a steady stream of cars that would be difficult to cross. Additionally, the project would take away the buffer zone that currently exists between the car and bike lanes.
Adams and Cadigan say that the work that is slated to be done on the Second Street and Fourth Street intersections will raise their threshold for vehicles and will lessen congestion.
But Sprick said that, due to the characteristics of the intersections, they couldn't be expanded enough to make any significant difference.
The other alternative is adding just a single, reversible HOV lane, as Hall suggests, which is a more complex procedure and would require that the median along Montaño be removed and turned into two smaller medians on either side of the HOV lane. It would also have to be engineered around the bridge crossing at Rio Grande, although Hall states that the bridge could remain as-is, and would include the installation of new signals, as well as the installation of pedestrian crossings. The project is estimated between $1.5-$1.8 million.
Sprick said that, although MRCOG hasn't done an analysis of the alternative, he believes it would likely be less intrusive to residents, as it only requires three instead of four lanes. Cadigan said he thought such a setup would be dangerous and would confuse people, as the HOV lane would switch directions during the day and would make Montaño too highway-like. But Sprick saw some advantages to the option as it would move more people instead of cars, by encouraging people to carpool.
Still, Sprick is unsure that re-striping should happen on the road. “It's almost better off just being a two-lane road, with all the impacts [re-striping] would bring to the area. The neighborhoods we've talked to have concerns [about the environment, wildlife, the quality of neighborhoods and the quality of air.] The real issue is that the city has to reconcile both transportation and neighborhood concerns.”