Albuquerque residents on Oct. 28 voted down a $52 million bond issue -- the only bond issue to fail out of 10 on the ballot, and the first one to fail since 1985. The vote grabbed headlines because it meant the temporary defeat of plans to extend roads through a national monument dedicated to petroglyphs -- rock art hundreds of years old.
Albuquerque has tried
to build the two roads -- Paseo del Norte and Unser Boulevard --
for more than a decade, but so far the only result has been to stir
up controversy. The most vocal supporters of the roads include the
small minority of Albuquerque residents and their elected
representatives whose shortest route to work is through the
The most vocal opponents say the new roads
would damage an outstanding area of Native American rock art, much
of which has obvious sacred content. It would be easy to conclude
that in voting down the bonds, Albuquerque citizens chose
petroglyphs over roads.
Not exactly. The vote conceals a
shift in local politics that, so far, has largely escaped
attention. Since World War II, Albuquerque's fate has been steered
by a "pro-growth" alliance of developers, builders and politicians.
Their formula was almost magical: Developers bought cheap rural
land; politicians used public funds to extend roads and other
services to the land, making it valuable; developers and builders
created thousands of single-family homes; politicians got a city
worthy of their ambitions.
Not incidentally, the
businessmen got rich while the politicians got their Life's blood
-- campaign contributions. Meanwhile, the public backed the whole
scheme with its votes; it was getting large but affordable homes on
large but affordable lots and, not incidentally, jobs that went
with building suburbs.
To everyone involved it was a
"win-win" situation -- one repeated in cities throughout the West.
Now, after years of easy success, the leaders of Albuquerque's
pro-growth alliance seem frustrated over their inability to build
two short segments of road. Some promoters even say they feel
What they're failing to recognize is a new
political fault line. Residents who live and work east of the
monument are starting to see the City's expansion as a "win-lose"
situation. To them, new suburbs mean more traffic, more smog,
smaller shares of a limited water supply and a loss of the West's
wide open spaces. It's difficult for them to see why they should
help pay for this process.
Pockets of outrage over damage
to the monument sealed the defeat of the bond issue. But neither
side seems to understand how deep the fault line runs; how the real
issue is the city's split between those who want to keep growing
outward and those who want to focus growth on the city's current
On the same day that voters killed the
road-bond issue, they voted in three new city council members and
re-elected a fourth, resulting in a net tilt away from the
council's former strong support for outward development. The
outcome was a surprise, in part, because a developer-led PAC waged
a high-profile campaign against candidates it didn't consider "
pro-business." Yet the Political Action Committee failed in every
race in which it intervened.
A few days after the road
bond defeat and city council election, voters used a mail-in
plebiscite to crush a proposal to combine Albuquerque and
Bernalillo County. The proposed merger had been worked out in
painful detail, including many public meetings, and was blessed by
the city's traditional leadership.
Residents of rural
Bernalillo County rejected the measure most strongly, fearing a
loss of their way of life, but city dwellers also rejected the
measure, apparently more concerned than excited by a vastly larger
city. By itself, the road bond issue could be seen as a fluke, but
when that vote is combined with the shift in city council
membership and the failure of city-county unification, a new
So far, leadership on the anti-sprawl
side of the new fault line is grassroots and barely articulated,
but that's also showing signs of change. In the 1990s, during an
earlier attempt to build roads through Petroglyph National
Monument, the most effective opponent was a college- age organizer
who came across like some annoying remnant of the 9160s.
Today, that same individual heads a political consulting firm that
was instrumental in the defeat of the road bonds and in several
races for local public office. As Albuquerque's anti-sprawl
leadership matures, the new political lineup is likely to become
more active, and the battles over growth far more intense.