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Know the West

Voters swipe at sprawl

Plan to build commuter expressway through national monument hits roadblock


ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO — This "off-year" election season resulted in one significant upset - of a controversial road proposed for New Mexico's Petroglyph National Monument.

For over a decade, city officials, developers and New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R, have beat the drum for a commuter expressway that would link Albuquerque's urban heart with a fast-growing constellation of subdivisions to the west (HCN, 10/25/99: Monumental chaos). But in late October, city residents voted down a bond measure that would have paid for the $12 million road as well as other transportation projects.

The petroglyph monument stretches 17 miles along a volcanic escarpment on the west side of Albuquerque. West of the monument, hundreds of square miles have been platted for subdivisions, and clusters of houses are sprouting, with names like Ventana Ranch and Black Ranch.

Domenici, who authored the legislation that established the monument in 1990, had argued that the 300-foot-wide road corridor would occupy one-tenth of one percent of the land area of the 7,236-acre monument. Fewer than 12 petroglyphs are within the corridor, and the road would be built to avoid "direct impact" on the 700-year-old rock etchings, according to Domenici's office.

"A national monument is not the kind of place to put a major road," says Dolph Barnhouse, executive director of the Albuquerque-based 1000 Friends of New Mexico. The road would have degraded petroglyphs and harmed wildlife, brought more noise and pollution to the monument, and, worse, encouraged more growth to the west. "And it wouldn't do anything to solve our transportation problems," he says.

Nonetheless, the road campaign had appeared to be gaining steam. In 1997, Domenici transferred the 8.5-acre road corridor to Albuquerque, enabling it to pursue the project without approval from the National Park Service, which manages the monument jointly with the city. In May of this year, the Albuquerque city council voted to move forward with the project.

But on October 28, the people who would have had to pay for it - Albuquerque residents - made their voices heard: No road. Fifty-two percent voted against the measure; 48 percent voted for it.

Chuck Gara, a real estate broker who founded Citizens for Greater Albuquerque, which promotes economic development in the city, says the project would have helped ease traffic congestion in the area. "From a traffic standpoint, there's a definite need for the extension," he says. "Efficient transportation is very important to the lifeblood of the city."

But critics like Barnhouse say the best way to cut down on traffic and congestion is to concentrate growth within the city limits, and avoid building distant subdivisions.

"This road would just dump more cars into an area that already has a lot of congestion," Barnhouse says. "They're just building street after street of housing, eating up big pieces of open land."

Critics also have pointed out that Domenici owns land on the west side of Albuquerque. But Chris Gallegos, a spokesman for Domenici, denies any conflict of interest. "His property is far removed from anything near the Petroglyph National Monument," says Gallegos. "He wouldn't benefit from this road."

While disappointed by the defeat of the bond measure, Domenici has no plans to try to secure federal funding for the project, Gallegos says. But the fight may not be over: There's been talk of another bond measure - perhaps put before voters during a special election next year - that would ask residents to decide on a specific list of projects, possibly including the monument road.

If the city does eventually give the project a green light, it's likely to unleash the wrath of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, along with area tribes that regard the site as sacred, and local environmental groups. They say they may sue the city for violating state historic preservation laws and neglecting to consult with tribes.

Barnhouse is hoping things won't come to that. He sees Albuquerque's rejection of the bond measure as a turning point in the debate over how the city should grow.

"We're hoping that all of us who are concerned about the city we live in can get together to work on problems concerning the west side," he says. "Until Oct. 28, I think there was a belief that we could build housing, and the roads would come. But I think it's pretty clear that's not the way it's going to be in Albuquerque now."

The author, formerly of Radio High Country News, is a freelance writer in Santa Fe.

1000 Friends of New Mexico 505-848-8232

New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici 202-224-6621