Small business owners fear Rapid Transit system will kill businesses

This story originally appeared in the Daily Lobo on February 15, 2015, and can be viewed here

Now that nearly $70 million in federal funding has been approved for Mayor Richard Berry’s passion project, it’s full steam ahead on a new bus rapid transit system that will run down Central Avenue from Unser to Tramway Boulevard.

However, many small business owners along the proposed route believe the Albuquerque Rapid Transit, or ART, spells an end to their shops, as well as the quirky personality of the Nob Hill area in particular.

“I’m thankful for living in a country where I don’t go to jail for fighting my government, but on the other hand, I shouldn’t have to fight my government. So that’s what we’re doing…because they’re not listening to us,” said Steve Schroeder, owner of Nob Hill Music.

Joe Annabi, manager of Astro-Zombies comic book store on Central — one of many businesses sporting a “No Albuquerque Rapid Transit” banner — said local politicians have downplayed the side effects of ART, including higher traffic congestion along the corridor, and are now denying the possibility of consequences from the new system.

“They care about having a lasting legacy in their final run in office,” Annabi said. “It’s going to be … a big drain on the city. Local business should be a part of local culture and should be on the minds of all politicians, but it’s not.”

Berry, who at a Friday press conference said ART is awaiting approval from the FTA, said the project has been in the works for five years and it could ultimately bring in $2 to 3 billion.

On a larger scale, Berry said the $119 million project is, in essence, the culmination of his transportation agenda, which included keeping Uber in Albuquerque and increasing bike trails.

“We’re talking about the next logical step,” he said, adding that it will be the gold standard for bus rapid transit in the country.

Pending FTA approval, construction will start in May, with plans to finish in late 2017. But many along the route are pessimistic that their business will survive that long.

Susan Ricker’s Off Broadway Vintage Clothing and Costumes has been in business for 32 years, and despite overcoming a fire in 2000, she said ART is the biggest threat her store has seen.

“I really don’t think they want (car) traffic on Central anymore, which goes against the beauty of Route 66,” she said.

Ricker said there is nothing quite like the Nob Hill portion of Route 66, which is traditionally renowned as a car corridor. She said she believes the project is built on ego, an attempt by Berry to secure his legacy before he leaves office, regardless of the opinions held by those whom ART will affect most.

“It’s obvious…we really don’t have a voice. Our voice doesn’t matter,” she said.

In fact, she said, the vast majority of business owners she has talked to share her sentiments, save for a mere pair who are in favor.

Schroeder’s experience was similar, as he said out of over 200 businesses he has talked to, only six are pro-ART.

After finding out many other businesses owners shared his opinion of ART, he formed savert66.org, where visitors can find updates about the project and a letter of petition to sign.

Schroeder said he believes ART would affect the integrity of the area, as well as tourism to the longest stretch of Route 66 in the country.

He said recently-elected City Councilor Pat Davis arranged meetings for public input, only to refrain from asking small business owners a single question.

“Pretty consistently the city has been lying in every place. But we’re a very small entity and we don’t have money, so we can’t broadcast like the mayor can,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder said the city is rushing the project, likening the mayor’s attitude regarding ART to the rhetoric surrounding the Titanic.

“They said ‘I’ve got an unsinkable ship.’ Well that’s the same with Captain Berry and the USS City of Albuquerque. He wants to get there in a hurry and he’s not paying attention,” he said. “There are just so many unanswered questions.”

Schroeder said he expects to be out of business before ART is completed.

Not all Nob Hill businesses are hesitant about ART. At Berry’s press conference, O’Niell’s Restaurant owner Robert Munro said new amenities, including better landscaping and wider sidewalks, will help pedestrianism in the area.

“I’m excited for this project, especially in Nob Hill (where) we have grand opportunities that ART is going to help us with,” he said.

David Silverman of Geltmore, LLC said ART is just the first part of a long-term plan for the area.

“We have a great opportunity in this community to plan for the future,” Silverman said. “A lot of other cities have gone this direction, and they’ve experienced much success because of it.”

Berry said one lane will always be open during construction.

According to route renderings on brtabq.com, ART will take Central down to one lane in each direction from just west of Bryn Mawr Drive to San Mateo Boulevard. From University Boulevard to that point west of Bryn Mawr, Central will be two lanes.

Annabi said although he is all for public transit, he has yet to receive answers justifying ART.

He said he doesn’t see how ART is going to be a substantial improvement over the two current systems — Rapid Ride and the city bus. He said remarks made about ART’s efficacy reminded him of the things being said about the Rapid Ride.

“I don’t know what the difference is other than they’re going to make this into a less functional road,” he said. “Reducing it from two to one lane in each direction is going to be a huge killer for the usability of this road.”

He said he is worried about the visibility of businesses, but also the space in the area that is needed for popular events like the Twinkle Light Parade and Summerfest.

The city raised signs along Central marking likely spots of future ART stations almost immediately after federal funding was approved.

Annabi said he believes that to be suspicious, and that the installations served as an omen for what it will be like to commute Central alongside a completed ART.

David Lynch is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at managingeditor@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.

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