Rapid-transit plan would be too disruptive

abq_journal

Advocates of market-oriented public policy rarely have anything complimentary to say about transit systems.

Government-owned trains and buses are fiercely protected by politicians and powerful lobbying groups, despite  consistently unimpressive ridership numbers and runaway costs. But in Albuquerque, at least lately, transit is a different story.

In 2004, the city,s bus system began to add express routes along Central Avenue. “Rapid Ride” features “60-foot long, articulated buses that accommodate up to 86 passengers.” The service is “loaded with new technology,” including WiFi, automatic announcements, “a global positioning system to aid in the transit applications that help passengers locate their bus in real time,” and state-of-the art security cameras and microphones. In addition, most Rapid Ride stations have “a structure which allows passengers to wait in safety and comfort.”

Route 766, which runs from the Uptown Transit Center to the West Side, saw passenger growth of 25.8 percent since its introduction. Route 790, which links the University of New Mexico’s main campus to the Northwest Transit Center, experienced growth of 87.2 percent. Route 777, connecting Tramway Boulevard to downtown, saw growth of 135.6 percent.

In its “Futures 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan,” the Mid-Region Metropolitan Transportation Organization concluded that increased boardings on the Duke City’s overall bus system were “directly attributable” to the three “Rapid Ride” lines.

At least in terms of demand, express bus service appears to be working in Albuquerque. So why does the city want to scrap a good thing?

Transportation planners are seeking to replace Rapid Ride with “Albuquerque Rapid Transit” (ART), which combines “many features of rail transit with the flexibility of buses.” Next month, the city will request federal funding to cover 80 percent of the costs of Phase 1 of the project, which is slated to run between Louisiana and Coors.

ART would eliminate one lane, each way, in order to create a dedicated bus guideway. It’s a shift the Cato Institute’s Randal O’Toole believes is unwise: “Dedicating two entire traffic lanes on Central Avenue to buses and giving those buses priority at traffic signals will do far more to increase congestion than any relief provided by the few cars taken off the road by the bus. Why should a few hundred bus riders a day be given these privileges while tens of thousands of people in cars are forced to sit in traffic?”

Don Hancock, of the University Heights Neighborhood Association, believes ART’s plan to eliminate its route’s median strip will cause “bicycle/pedestrian safety problems … to increase dramatically.” Walkers and cyclists attempting to cross the guideway, Hancock said, are “continuous accidents just waiting to happen.”

Thus far, ART’s supporters have ignored questions about their project’s public-safety and congestion-creation issues, preferring to focus on transit’s alleged ability to attract professional Millennials. But polling data are beginning to show that young adults’ housing preferences resemble previous generations’ inclinations. Describing a recent survey, an economist for the National Association of Homebuilders wrote that two-thirds of Millennials “wanted to reside in a suburban neighborhood, compared to 10 percent wanting to own a home in a central city. Nearly a quarter of residents wanted to be outside large metropolitan areas entirely, preferring rural housing.” While recent college graduates continue to be drawn to places such as Washington, D.C., they are also flocking to “sprawling” metro areas such as Houston, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Orlando, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and Nashville.

Will ART be affordable? Check the record. In the words of Veronique de Rugy, a researcher with the Mercatus Center, “Infrastructure spending tends to suffer from massive cost overruns, waste, fraud, and abuse.” And while ART is not a rail line, building it will nonetheless be a complex undertaking, involving ripping up median strips, improving sidewalks, constructing stations, and relocating utilities.

Citizens in Abilene, Anchorage, and Atlanta shouldn’t be taxed to support a project of dubious benefit to Albuquerque. The federal government should deny funding to ART.

Dowd Muska (dmuska@riograndefoundation.org) is research director of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

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