Note: This is the second story in a two-part series on Albuquerque’s Lead and Coal Avenues. Click to read part one.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – If you’ve been following KRQE’s coverage of Albuquerque’s roadways, you’ve probably noticed that Lead and Coal Avenues seem to have a lot of crashes — including a fatal crash over the weekend — and a lot of construction. But did you know that the one-ways have been points of contention for more than 70 years?
The latest speed-control project, the installation of “Rest on Red” smart stoplights, is just one of many attempts the city has made at improving the streets. In fact, Lead and Coal have “been a problem for a long time,” says Joseph Aguirre, a neighborhood advocate who has lived on Lead Avenue since the 1990s. “They’ve been controversial and there have been concerns about their safety for decades.”
He’s not exaggerating. A 1950 citywide study identified Coal Avenue as a problem (at the time, Coal included part of modern-day Lead Avenue). Despite “the proper use of traffic engineering methods and devices,” the report reads, “deficiencies still remain.”
At the time, those “deficiencies” boiled down to the fact that Coal wasn’t carrying enough traffic. And the problem wasn’t unique to Coal. The number of cars in the city was on the rise and city leaders were looking for ways to get traffic to and from downtown quickly and efficiently.
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Over the years, average traffic volumes on Lead and Coal have varied between about 10,000 and 18,000 vehicles per weekday. Data from Mid-Region Council of Governments.
“It is not reasonable to expect the street facilities of 1940 to be capable of handling the traffic of 1950,” the 1950 study explains. The proposed solution: arterials, which they described as streets “made attractive to drivers.”
In other words, the designers picked the Lead and Coal to be designated through traffic streets. They’d turn the streets into one-ways, then “travel in and through the city will be easy and rapid,” they promised.
“One-way operation increases traffic-carrying capacity of streets by at least 20 percent and up to 50 percent depending upon the character of the street,” the 1950 report notes. But the switch to one-ways didn’t happen overnight.
By 1953, when a follow-up report by the Automotive Safety Foundation was conducted, some of the recommended arterial changes had been implemented by the city, but converting Lead and Coal to one-ways throughout their lengths had not been completed. Still, the plan remained in place: “One of the most needed operational changes is the establishment of Coal and Lead Avenues as one-way streets,” the 1953 follow-up said.
The push to make Lead and Coal high-volume streets was done to relieve congestion on Central Avenue, according to the report. But the proposal triggered some disagreement.
“There is some feeling in the city that a major arterial cross-town highway should be constructed north of the central business district in preference to the development of the proposed Coal-Lead-Zuni system,” the report notes. The plan to make Lead and Coal one-ways went forward regardless. Still, complaints from residents continued over the next few decades.
“There were complaints way back and resistance to converting those into one-ways,” explains Chris Wilson, professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico (UNM). He has been active in the University Heights Neighborhood Association and authored a 1986 handbook about the history of the area.
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“The development of Lead and Coal as one-way arterials was one of the first factors in the decline of the area,” he wrote in the University Heights handbook. That, combined with the rise of 1960s-era counterculture, the decision to allow unmarried undergraduate students at UNM to live off-campus, and changes to the zoning laws that allowed larger apartments, drastically changed the neighborhood around UNM, Wilson explained.
The changes led to the rise of neighborhood associations as advocates for change — a voice that still advocates for the area, especially in relation to safety along the one-ways. “The university associations were essential in getting the city to start paying attention to neighborhoods that they had actually seriously damaged,” Wilson says. This “damage,” he adds, came when city developers put “heavy traffic on neighborhood streets that were not designed for it.”
Lead and Coal “were envisioned as cross streets in residential neighborhoods, not as through arterials,” Wilson says. And when they were made into higher-volume streets, designers didn’t do much to mitigate the effects of the increased traffic, Wilson explains.
“In the 1950s, they were minimally retrofitted. They basically took the existing right of way and they pushed as many lanes — that is three lanes — through as possible, with really no redesign, other than laying down the lane lines,” he says. “So, that’s part of the problem. They weren’t designed for this.”
During public meetings in the 1980s, residents listed “too much traffic on residential streets, and on Lead and Coal” as a key issue, along with burglaries, unhoused people, and several other factors that gave the University Neighborhood a “negative image,” according to a report by the city’s Planning Department. Indeed, the report explains that “many traffic problems stem from the fact that the area’s streets were designed on a grid pattern before the advent of the automobile.” Newer neighborhoods, on the other hand, were designed with maze-like streets that discourage through traffic.
Throughout the 90s and 2000s, several studies, public meetings, and task-forces worked to address the residents’ concerns. During a 2006 public meeting, most residents agreed: “Speeding is a very big issue in the corridor,” a 2007 study reveals.
Some folks wanted the one-ways converted back to residential streets; others wanted Lead and Coal to remain as arterials. Some folks wanted the streets to remain as one-ways; others wanted the streets converted into two-ways, the report shows.
In the end, the one-way supporters won out. By 2010, construction workers were once again re-designing the streets at a cost of more than $26 million. Three lanes were cut down to two, bike lanes were added, and the sidewalks were widened, creating Lead and Coal as we know them today.
Now, according to some residents, traffic problems continue despite the numerous studies and changes over the years. “The most salient problem is crashes into yards, homes, properties,” Joseph Aguirre says. “The crash situation remains unacceptable.”
“We are done with decades of tinkering,” he says. After all, the layouts of the streets are “meant to promote speed. It’s meant to allow them to function as principal arterial roadways.” If the goal is getting the speed down, particularly getting it down to around 25 miles per hour, which he says would be ideal, “I don’t know how that’s going to happen without the conversion to two-way traffic,” he adds.
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