ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s the most dangerous place to step foot in Albuquerque, and it’s not because of crime.
For years, the intersection of Central and San Mateo has been a magnet for serious, sometimes deadly crashes involving cars, pedestrians and bicyclists. Between 2009 and 2014, state crash data shows two people were killed among the 25 pedestrians and 15 bicyclists that were known to be hit by cars at the intersection.
The noticeable problem recently garnered the attention of federal highway officials, who spent the last year collaborating with the city and state to study the intersection. The Federal Highway Administration and Mid-Region Council of Governments have now proposed 16 recommendations on how to make the intersection safer.
The city tells KRQE News 13 it has a plan to address most of the study’s recommended safety improvements, however, some of the key suggestions are being left out, for now.
Lorraine Begay is one of the many people who walk near Central and San Mateo. She says she’s almost been hit by a car there twice.
“(Drivers) don’t care!” said Begay. “They just zoom by you!”
Central Avenue carries six lanes of traffic and a speed limit of 35 miles per hour near San Mateo. San Mateo carries seven lanes of traffic and a 40 miles per hour speed limit near Central.
Patricia Baker is another pedestrian who says she’s tired of feeling threatened by cars while crossing at the intersection.
“They will cut you off, they don’t care if you’re pedestrian,” said Baker.
With 40 people known to have been hit by cars at Central and San Mateo between 2009 and 2014, the crash numbers make it the most dangerous intersection in Central New Mexico, and among the most dangerous in the state for pedestrians and bicyclists.
“It’s not exactly safe,” said Lisa Gutierrez, who says catches an Albuquerque city bus at the intersection almost daily. “People don’t pay attention.”
The intersection is also one of the busiest in Albuquerque. An estimated 500 people work in nearby offices. Central and San Mateo is also close to Highland High School, a Walmart, a Walgreens and a gas station. The Mid-Region Council of Governments estimates that nearly 50,000 cars travel through the intersection daily. ABQRide’s 2011 passenger counts averaged 2,700 transit riders getting on and off the bus at Central and San Mateo every day.
People who walk near Central and San Mateo are likely to put plenty of blame on “bad drivers” for speeding and turning in front of people in the crosswalk. When KRQE News 13 observed the intersection in late September, Robert Martinez was among the pedestrians who were cut-off while waiting for the crosswalk signal. As Martinez was about to cross, a car stopped in the middle of the walkway, forcing Martinez to walk around it and reducing the amount of time he had to cross.
“You do have to be in a rush most of the time to get across,” said Martinez. “By the time you’re halfway there, cars are already passing by.”
In just a couple hours, KRQE News 13 saw dozens of people rushing across the intersection to beat the walk signal, and to get out of the way of turning cars that should have been yielding to pedestrians.
On the flip side, KRQE News 13 also saw a lot of pedestrians and bicyclists breaking the rules at the intersection. On several occasions, people could be seen running across the intersection without a walk signal or jay-walking through traffic to get from one bus stop to another on the opposite side of the street.
But no matter what people choose to blame, the problems at Central and San Mateo still exist.
In 2014, New Mexico led the nation in the most pedestrian deaths per capita. The shameful rank got the attention of federal highway officials and local leaders. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) picked Albuquerque as one of 30 “pedestrian/bicycle safety focus cities” in 2011 and 2015 because of the higher than average pedestrian fatality rate.
“If we could just reduce the number of incidents at this one intersection (Central and San Mateo) that statistic would go down,” said Augusta Meyers, communications director for the Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG.)
Alongside the FHA, MRCOG, University of New Mexico and city of Albuquerque employees started studying the intersection in March 2015. In July 2016, the group published the “Central Ave. and San Mateo Blvd. Pedestrian and Bicycle Road Safety Assessment.” The study found eight issues with the existing intersection.
Some of the biggest issues were a lack of sidewalk space for a high number of pedestrians; heavy traffic; drivers speeding and failing to yield; erratic bicyclist behavior; and many people jaywalking. The study also acknowledged “substance abuse issues” that were “evident” at the intersection.
“People don’t go right to the corner often times to cross,” said Meyers.
Another major issue found at the intersection was a high number pedestrians with disabilities struggling to get across the street. KRQE News 13 saw several instances where people in wheelchairs had a hard time accessing wheelchair crosswalk ramps. Others were seen using canes and struggling to cross the street in the allotted crosswalk time. New Mexico’s Division of Vocational Rehab operates a nearby office that works with many people living with disabilities.
It’s now up to the city of Albuquerque to fix the problems highlighted in the federal study.
Albuquerque’s Chief Operating Officer Michael Riordan told KRQE News 13 that he feels the observations in the study were, “spot on.” When asked if the intersection was dangerous, Riordan agreed.
“It’s not as optimally safe as it should be, so it’s a different way of saying dangerous,” said Riordan. “The accommodations that are there need to be improved.”
Riordan says in the next year, the city will fix Central and San Mateo with its new city bus project: Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART.) The bus rapid transit project will put dedicated bus lanes along Central, and calls for a type of bus stop at San Mateo.
“The number one thing is we’re going to be widening sidewalks,” said Riordan.
The city says it’s planning to roughly double the width of the sidewalks at Central and San Mateo, from about 5.5 to 6 feet wide to 10 feet wide. It’s also planning to fix, cleanup, and realign the crosswalk ramps to make it easier for pedestrians, particularly the handicapped, to cross the street. The city says it will also extend crosswalk times for all of the crossings at Central and San Mateo.
Other changes include re-striping of the roadway and crosswalks, changes to reduce the swooping curves around the corners, adding new reflective materials on traffic signals, and bicycle wayfinding signs.
But the city believes the biggest safety addition will come with the new bus stop at the intersection. The city is planning to put the ART station in the middle of Central Avenue. Currently, there are bus stops on both sides of Central.
“(It) allows people that are accessing (bus) transit to just cross two general purpose lanes, and an ART lane now, instead of six general traffic lanes going at all random speeds,” said Riordan. “It really controls the pedestrian and vehicle crossings much better with ART.”
However, the city is holding off on some of the federal recommendations. The study suggested investigating reducing the number of traffic lanes on San Mateo. Currently, there are seven total lanes on San Mateo, with one of those lanes serving as a center turn lane. Riordan says Central will get lane reductions.
“What we see is more of those recommendations and some of the pedestrians accidents that have happened out there, is more of jaywalking across Central and that’s actually where the bus stop,” said Riordan.
Another suggestion from the federal study was to reduce the speed limit from 40 miles per hour to 35 miles per hour. The city isn’t currently considering the idea.
“By changing the speed limit you don’t necessarily change driver habits because, how the roadway is built is how people will drive,” said Riordan
Two other key ideas on hold include automating the pedestrian crosswalk signals and limiting right turns. With automated walk signals, pedestrians would get a walk-pedestrian signal whenever drivers got a green light.
“We don’t want to necessarily stop traffic if a pedestrian is not there,” said Riordan.
Under a proposal of limiting right turns, drivers could be blocked from turning right at certain times of the day where a large number of pedestrians are crossing.
“We’re committed to following up after ART is done, to see if there are any other modifications that can be made,” said Riordan.
One of those modifications could be “leading pedestrian intervals,” (LPI) for Central and San Mateo. That’s a proposal to give pedestrians a walk-signal for a short-period of time before any other cars are given a green light. The city says it wants to conduct a “pilot project” with LPI signals tried up and down Central after ART is up and running.
“It does affect traffic and we want to be cognizant of that,” said Riordan.
While some people who use the intersection told KRQE News 13 they’re encouraged by almost any change the city makes to the intersection, others think making Central and San Mateo safer goes beyond a redesign.
“Well come on, I’m crossing, you’re crossing, there’s only way we’re both going to get to where we want to go! It’s called respect,” said Patricia Baker, a pedestrian who walks the intersection often.
The city is planning for all the changes to Central and San Mateo to be in place by late 2017 when ART construction is expected to be complete.