Coal Avenue’s long-time downtown traffic back-up to remain

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – If you’ve ever driven downtown at rush hour, chances are you’ve noticed it or you’ve gotten stuck right in the middle of it.

Nearly every weekday, lots of drivers on Coal Avenue find themselves stuck in a stop-and-go crawl while heading through a few downtown blocks. A commute across just five or six city blocks can sometimes take five to six times longer than it normally would.

“We take this almost every day, and we definitely get stuck, right at this place,” said one driver to KRQE News 13.

“All day every day!” said another driver when asked how often he gets stuck in the traffic lights.

Even though the unique downtown-exit issue is clear to some, as KRQE News 13 found out, it’s not quite clear to the city and likely won’t be address anytime soon.

The Problem

According to some city traffic counts, roughly 7,000 drivers use Coal Avenue each day, making it one of the top five busiest streets downtown. Many drivers end up using Coal Ave to cross the railroad track and exit downtown. The road is one of the closet routes to Interstate 25, and also gives drivers a direct connection to an Interstate 25 on-ramp, instead of the I-25 Frontage Road.

While much of Coal moves with timed lights through East Downtown, Nob Hill and other neighborhoods up through San Mateo, the same can’t be said for the downtown blocks.

On most weekday afternoons, drivers will find themselves sitting at multiple light cycles between 8th and 2nd Streets.

Over four weeks, KRQE News 13’s camera caught the issue spring up again and again. Typically the problem starts up and clears out between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Many drivers who KRQE News 13 spoke with were familiar with the nagging issue.

“How often do you get stuck in these lights?” asked KRQE News 13’s Chris McKee.

“All the time, constantly,” said the driver.

“Quite frequently, yeah,” said another driver when asked if he’d ever dealt with the traffic back-up problem.

On a Thursday afternoon, KRQE News 13 timed several commutes eastbound on Coal, leaving downtown, which took between 5 and 6 minutes to get from 8th Street to the bridge starting at 2nd Street.

Some drivers blame Coal’s traffic lane configuration. Between 8th and 2nd Streets, Coal Avenue has one-lane of traffic in each direction and on-street parking on both sides. Compare that to Lead Avenue, which has two-lanes of traffic leading westbound into downtown, starting at 2nd Street. There’s also no on-street parking on Lead between 2nd and 8th Streets.

Other drivers blame the traffic light timing on Coal. Watching from the sidewalk, KRQE News 13 found that during the back-up the roughly 30-second light cycles will sometimes only allow three to four eastbound cars through. While eastbound drivers sit at the red light, drivers with green lights from north-south streets will turns on to Coal, clogging the street back-up.

Another issue emerges from a clogged Coal when drivers get stuck in the intersections. Frequently during the back-up, drivers that get stuck in the intersection, or get tired of waiting, will peel off into residential side streets like 5th and 6th and Iron Avenue.

While the problem didn’t bother every driver that KRQE News 13 heard from, it did bother those who had somewhere to be.

“When you’re trying to get home, yeah,” chuckled one driver caught in the Coal back-up.

A Fix?

KRQE News 13 took video of the back-up to the city of Albuquerque’s Municipal Development Department (DMD) the department that, in part, is in charge of fixing the city’s traffic issues.

“This is not something that we have been made aware of in the past,” said Melissa Lozoya, acting director of the city’s Municipal Development Department.

While KRQE News 13 made the city aware of the issue for apparently the first time, it doesn’t mean that the city is calling it a problem.

“The first thing I thought of was it was peak hour, when we do have an influx of people leaving the downtown area, trying to get out and get to the freeways,” said Lozoya.

Following KRQE News 13’s inquiry with the city, DMD says a traffic engineer went out to monitor the situation on a weekday afternoon during “peak hour,” which the city considers between 4 and 6 p.m.

“The report that I got was we weren’t able to see the back-up as shown in the video,” said Lozoya.

Because of that, the city says a fix isn’t necessarily on the radar.

“Not at this time, we are more than happy to monitor it and see, perhaps, if we can see the situation that you’ve described,” said Lozoya.

The problem hasn’t always existed though. Coal Avenue used to have more than one lane out of downtown. Back in 2003, city traffic planners turned the one-way street into a two-way street and added on-street parking to the sides of the roads.

Back then, the idea was to get people to slow down and maybe shop at the handful of business along that stretch. KRQE News 13 asked the city is they would consider tweaking the design on Coal once again, possibly to add second lane or make it one-way once more. The city says it’s unlikely.

“We had kind of looked at that but the business owners in the area felt it was an impact to their businesses, and they did not desire the one ways,” said Lozoya.

The city also pointed to construction at several east-west crossing, including 1st Street and Central Avenue, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Broadway, and Avenida Cesar Chavez and Broadway. All of that construction should wrap with the end of the summer season.

However, some drivers say Coal’s back-up is a long time issue. For now, the city says drivers will have to live with Coal as it is.

“I would just look for alternative routes,” said Lozoya. “I think we have Gibson to the south, if you’re wanting to head south on I-25; we have 5th Street that will take you up to I-40, then you can catch I-25 going north, so there are various routes through the city or through the downtown area that you can take. There’s Lomas as well, we don’t have any construction on Lomas right now.”

Lead & Coal’s Future

There could be other changes to Lead and Coal’s configuration on the horizon though.

Back in 2014, Albuquerque’s district two City Councilor Isaac Benton paid for a “walkability study” by national renowned city planner Jeff Speck.

Speck’s study, titled, “Albuquerque Downtown Walkability Analysis,” suggested re-configuring the roadway on both Lead and Coal Avenues. Along Coal, Speck suggests the city re-stripe traffic lanes on Coal to keep the street two-way, with one lane in each direction, and to continue the on-street parking on both sides of the road. Speck has also suggested that the city narrow Coal Avenue’s traffic lanes from roughly 15-feet wide to 11-feet. With the additional space, Speck suggests adding an eastbound bike lane to the edge of the southern edge of the roadway (page 67.)

In 2015, Albuquerque City Councilors passed a resolution to use Speck’s study and recommendations as policy for future street projects downtown. So far, the city has yet to schedule any changes to the configuration of Coal Avenue.

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