‘ART’ bus plan is an incomplete picture for many

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) — Albuquerque’s much-debated bus rapid transit project for the old Route 66 corridor along Central Ave. is long on promise, but for many people who have gone to a series of community meetings to search for answers, it’s been short on specifics.

Doubled ridership within the first year? There’s a handy graph in the latest city video about the project, but it doesn’t cite sources or even explain how the city arrived at that conclusion. Ridership Graph

How fast will Albuquerque Rapid Transit — known as “ART” — move riders when compared to the current Rapid Ride system? That’s a question still unanswered for many.

The city insists it has those answers, but admits that the impact of the project on traffic, public transit and economic growth can’t truly be measured until $119.3 million dollars is spent and the new buses are rolling down dedicated lanes on Central Ave.

“It is dependent on so many things having to come together,” said Albuquerque Chief Operations Officer Michael Riordan. “(But) so many other communities have had it come together.”

In a lengthy interview on the project, Riordan pointed to cities like Cleveland and Fort Collins that have rolled out bus rapid transit programs. Boosters say bus rapid transit has spurred billions in growth along the routes.

Detractors say Cleveland’s system serves a city that has pro sports teams, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a major medical center. Fort Collins is a much smaller college town that has enjoyed a population boom. Albuquerque isn’t similar to either one, they say, and a bus rapid transit system through the heart of town might as well be a stake through the heart of Albuquerque’s main street.

Part of the attraction for city leaders is that bus rapid transit is a relatively inexpensive investment. Albuquerque will spend about one local dollar for every five federal dollars allotted for the project. In real terms, that means federal taxes foot the bill for more than $100 million.

That federal money comes with strings attached, though, that Riordan said requires the Duke City to have its ducks in a row.

“Every system that wants to have federal funding goes through this rigorous test on how ridership is going to come out,” he said.

The federal test —  a measure called Simulated Trips-on-Project Software, or “STOPS” — is specifically designed to be useful for cities like Albuquerque that have applied for federal Small Starts funding that will contribute more than half the project’s total price tag. Its numbers are what’s behind the generic green graph in the city video.

But, the Federal Transit Administration warns, STOPS is not very good at predicting travel by tourists. That’s significant in Albuquerque because one of the state’s most-visited destinations, the BioPark, is along the bus rapid transit route. So is Albuquerque’s historic Old Town, often cited as a tourist hot spot.

The STOPS system also isn’t adept at figuring out what major congestion or better transit access will do to travel patterns. In Albuquerque, that means it’s not a good way to anticipate where drivers will chose to drive if Central becomes too crowded or too slow for their needs. The city has done other traffic studies, though, and predicts the benefits of reliable rapid bus transit will outweigh any hassle to drivers used to taking Central Ave. to get where they’re going, particularly when that destination involves a trip to or through the University of New Mexico and the Nob Hill shopping and dining district just to the east of campus.

At one of the city’s busiest intersections, Central and University Ave., there are plenty of unanswered questions about traffic flow and the impact of ART upon Albuquerque drivers, bike riders and pedestrians.

The plan calls for buses to occupy two lanes of traffic. That forces any east-west vehicles into a single lane in each direction. That’s at an intersection that routinely backs up several blocks in those directions during peak travel time.

Riordan said Central Ave. traffic will get a longer green light to move more vehicles through. But the longer the green light on Central is, the longer the line becomes to turn left onto Central from southbound University Ave. That’s a maneuver that comes with its own several-block-long backup right now.

Figuring out where that traffic might go is a complex proposition that takes into account a dizzying number of variables — Why is the traffic there? Where is it headed? Might some cars bypass the university using Lomas or Lead or Coal Ave.?

When Riordan offered a frustrated “Well, some of that traffic is going to go away,” he was right, but he also knew that rerouted traffic would carry those questions into another neighborhood or another intersection.

Some of those drivers might even get annoyed enough at traffic delays that they will find a place to park and use the new bus system. Maybe.

Riordan said that as the city explored the possibility of a more robust bus rapid transit system, it sought out people who didn’t ride the bus to see if they’d be willing to try it. “If you knew this bus was going to be here every seven minutes and you knew that it could get you to the BioPark or get you to downtown,” the city asked, “is this something that would interest you in riding our bus system?”

Many answered yes. Whether that interest translates into real ridership in numbers great enough to drive economic development along the route, remains to be seen.

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