ART lawsuit: City traffic data shows bus plan will clog Central

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) — A group of Albuquerque businesses and residents wants to force the city’s $119 million Bus Rapid Transit plan to make an unscheduled stop.

The Make ART Smart coalition has asked a federal judge to force the Federal Transit Administration to take another look at the environmental impact of the Albuquerque Rapid Transit plan. If successful, the suit could force a delay of months or longer as the city develops and considers alternatives to the project.

Much of the coalition’s lawsuit relies on the analysis of University of New Mexico civil engineering assistant professor Gregory Rowangould, who dug into little-seen traffic studies used by the city to bolster its application for $69 million in federal funding. The federal grant proved the key to unlocking the rest of the money needed for the transit project.

The coalition said it came across Rowangould’s name in documents one of its members requested from the city. The professor had emailed the city with concerns about the study’s methods and its conclusion. The coalition hired him.

“If you read his 39-page study,” said coalition spokeswoman Jean Bernstein, who owns the Flying Star chain of restaurants, “it is clear that the data the city used is inaccurate. The models are completely unreliable and overall they are poorly prepared and they are not based on fact.”

Rowangould’s review criticizes the city’s primary traffic study for using a model that is too simplistic for the 14-mile-long rapid transit system. The model was so poorly set up, Rowangould claimed, that it failed to accurately predict traffic patterns that had already been observed by the company doing the study. Such poor calibration would inevitably result in poor predictions of future traffic loads, the professor said.

Even if the city’s traffic study were reliable, Rowangould argued, its conclusions showed that ART would make congestion worse in the years after it was built, eventually culminating in a series of traffic snarls that would likely necessitate removing the dedicated traffic lanes that make a bus rapid transit system possible. For example, the city’s traffic study said, within two decades the design could result in a massive traffic jam for morning commuters to the University of New Mexico. Eastbound traffic would stretch in a a nine-block-long line from Interstate 25 east along Central Ave. to University Blvd.

In its answer to the federal lawsuit, filed Wednesday evening, the city said the coalition’s request was based not on a reasoned appeal of federal approvals, “but that they do not like how it turned out.”

Albuquerque Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano said changes had been made to the ART plan since the 2015 traffic study.

“If we didn’t provide the solution, I would understand some of the concern. But the solutions are baked into exactly the plans we’re providing,” he said.

Montano said the coalition’s attempt to use the National Environmental Policy Act to force another review of the bus plan was misguided.

Rather than claiming an adverse impact to an endangered species like the Rio Grande silvery minnow, the Make ART Smart lawsuit says the human environment of the “economy, neighborhoods, traffic and pedestrians” would be impacted enough that a thorough environmental assessment should be required by NEPA.

The coalition says that the FTA’s decision to give the city a categorical exclusion from environmental review came after just five business days, despite the fact that the agency had more than 1,800 pages to review. The decision amounted to a rubber stamp, Bernstein said, and gave little indication of the kind of review required by such a large project.

Both the coalition and the city expect a decision on the lawsuit from federal District Court judge Ken Gonzales sometime next month.

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