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One area resident has called the conditions “lamentable” and “indescribably filthy.”
Downtown’s city councilor is frustrated, too.
Albuquerque officials acknowledge problems along the Central Avenue underpass’ pedestrian walkways and say they are taking new steps to keep them clean and safe.
That means enclosing the lights in cages to stop vandals from continuing to break them. The city also will try the same approach businesses like Walgreens have used to deter loitering – it will soon play nonstop music where Central Avenue ducks beneath the railroad tracks just east of First Street.
“(It’s) something that may be somewhat irritating that would discourage individuals from hanging out inside that tunnel,” Pat Montoya, Albuquerque’s municipal development director, told the City Council earlier this month, adding that security officers from the nearby city transit center are also starting to monitor the underpass.
But people who live nearby remain skeptical, saying the city has a pattern of taking half-measures that make no lasting impact at the critical junction between Downtown and the East Downtown area.
“History here strongly suggests that yet another campaign for improvement is doomed to fail because history also suggests there will be no long-term, coordinated plan to make sure the improvements are sustained,” said Bruce Redford with the Huning Highland Historic District Association.
Redford publicly broached concerns about the underpass during a City Council meeting last fall. He described an unlit passage and “indescribably filthy” sidewalks – something he said not only troubles residents but may hurt Albuquerque’s reputation with the visitors staying at the new hotel nearby.
Although his comments sparked some follow-up discussion at the Nov. 7 council meeting, Redford said he saw only minimal improvement in the aftermath.
Meanwhile, neighbors have continued to report horror stories.
Elijah Esquivel said he uses the tunnel somewhat regularly and has often seen trash, feces and people using drugs but when he, his wife and their 4-year-old ventured through the tunnel around midday on Dec. 31, the situation was particularly distressing.
“It was pitch-black in there and was the grossest I’ve ever seen it,” said Sandoval, who has lived in the vicinity for five years. “You had to walk around trash and puddles everywhere, it smelled absolutely terrible and the three people openly doing meth didn’t even notice us.”
City Councilor Isaac Benton, who represents the area, is similarly dismayed.
Benton asked city administrators for updates during the council’s Jan. 4 meetings. He described an increasingly angry constituency and his own frustration that the city’s last major lighting upgrade inside the tunnel has proven largely ineffective at stopping vandalism, even though he said that was a widely discussed concern during the design process.
“We were going to be sure that the lighting in there – you could hit it with a baseball bat and could not break it,” Benton said, adding that the city should do more to hold contractors accountable for such work.
The city spent $400,000 on a 2019 update that included lighting and noise reduction barriers between the walkways and car lanes, according to city spokesman Scott Cilke.
The newest upgrades – which Cilke said include “new armored lights, fencing and sound systems to deter loitering” – will cost an estimated $60,000 and should be done in the next few weeks.
Lawrence Rael, the city’s top administrator, has said every intervention taken so far is the equivalent of putting “lipstick on a pig,” and that the bigger, better solution could come with the planned Rail Trail project. The Rail Trail aims to connect the Rail Yards, Downtown, the Sawmill District and more via a walkable and bikeable path.
As envisioned, it would feature a pedestrian crossing at the site at the same grade as the tracks so that people would not have to walk through the underpass.
“That’s an absolute centerpiece of the whole thing,” Chief Administrative Officer Rael said, noting that the city could then potentially close the underpass to non-automotive traffic. The project is still in the design phase and he said the city hopes to get renderings by this spring. But Esquivel said he worries such monumental change remains years away.
“Who knows if that is even going to happen?” he said, adding that neighbors worry the city is still just in “patching” mode. “That’s why everyone is saying ‘we’re tired.’”