This story is the beginning of a series of stories. The series will deal with an abject and total disaster. It will appear irregularly over the next few weeks, maybe months, as the situation requires. And it will tell a tale of hubris, and incompetence in high places, and of a Republican mayor who wanted to build an everlasting monument…to himself…and very nearly bankrupted his city while he did it.
And we tell this tale, and these stories, not just because we are personally affected by A.R.T. in all its wretched glory. We tell it because all politics is local (to quote the great Tip O’Neal) and because it is an interesting tale of stupidity and arrogance in high places. And because, most of all, it is a metaphor… or, even, an omen… for what is to come for the country as a whole.
For what happens when a Republican administration comes to power, promises to govern “like a business”…
Only to tax, and borrow, and spend…on a scale unimaginable by even the most profligate “tax and spend” liberal.
Perhaps a little background is in order. Our city, Albuquerque, is like a lot of Southwestern cities. It is quite pleasant as cities go, though it has problems. One of its problems, one of the most important, is a lack of public transportation. There is a bus system, but it has largely been ignored for decades.
So, when our former Mayor, Richard Berry (a Republican), suggested an upgrade in public transport, everyone was pretty much delighted. An excellent idea, everyone thought. Just what we need, everyone said. Get those diesel antiques that we called “buses” off the street and replace them with something newer and a bit more comfortable.
Ah, but then the city learned where Berry wanted his new transit system…the A.R.T. It was to be smack dab down a street called “Central,” which is the old Route 66 and runs from the mountains in the East, through some fairly unattractive areas, past the university, through downtown, and finally to what’s called Old Town, which is the original heart of the city and is now a popular tourist destination.
The problem? Nobody wanted or needed a transit system through most of those areas. Oh, something linking Old Town to the University area, that might have had some value. But East Central is a pretty barren place…the sort of spot where you go to purchase an RV, or, bluntly, locate a sex worker.
And Downtown? Well, Albuquerque is an old western sort of city. That means that eighty years ago, Downtown was a vibrant place, the center of business, shopping, and government. But, with the coming of the car and the shopping mall, that all went away, and much of Downtown has been for a long time shuttered and unsafe.
It’s coming back, yes. There are new businesses moving into the area, plus some very good restaurants, and there’s starting to be an art scene, but right now it isn’t a spot where one would willingly go on a bus, unless one had a very specific reason to do so.
And Old Town? A great place to go on an afternoon. Martha and I visit it frequently. There are some wonderful museums there, and a few excellent shops (visit Old Town Antiques next time you go. Great stuff. Say hello to Connie). But most of those who do go there travel in their own cars. That’s particularly true for tourists who may be simply driving through.
So, all in all, there wasn’t much need for A.R.T. At least not where Berry wanted it.
And there was another issue…a technological one. The Mayor wasn’t talking about simply replacing a fleet of aging buses with new ones. What he had in mind was more like light rail, without the rails. The system was to be made up of a number of slightly futuristic, all-electric buses that would only run on dedicated lanes in the middle of Central (lanes from which regular cars would be excluded).
But the buses weren’t exactly off-the-shelf items. They were going to have to be special ordered from a company in China. (If you’re wondering, yes, that’s foreshadowing.)
Further, none of this was going to be cheap. The buses were going to be expensive, and the construction vastly more so. The Mayor assured everyone that there would be Federal funds available, but when people looked for hard money on the table, it seemed rather difficult to grasp.
And, finally, construction was going to be disruptive. Central is heavily travelled, and ripping it up (which was what would be required) would mean that there would be traffic jams from one end of the city to the other, more or less all the time, for atleast a year.
In the process, those businesses that were on Central, particularly in what’s known here as the Nob Hill district (the rather trendy area just East of the University), would lose what small customer parking they had. Though, that might not matter, because with the streets torn up, the customers would have considerable trouble getting to the shops at all.
So, all in all, everyone agreed, A.R.T. didn’t look a good idea.
When the city requested public comment on the plan, people came forward eagerly. A.R.T. simply wouldn’t work, they said. Not here, they added. Not down Central. Somewhere else, perhaps. Maybe a North-South line that would provide access to the Air Force base? Or perhaps something that would make it possible for folks who live on the West Side, in Rio Rancho, to cross the River without having to drive? Or, well, so many other options…
They were certain they would be heard. Their arguments were so reasonable. Besides, they, after all, were the voters. They were taxpayers. They were the city.
So, they spoke up at meetings with public officials, and sent letters, and left comments on web sites…