The Folly of Osuna Road: Return on Investment + Using Our Resources More Effectively

– Dan Majewski

The New Mexico Railrunner, an important regional transportation investment.   Photo credit: LightRailNow.org.
The New Mexico Railrunner, an important regional transportation investment. Photo credit: LightRailNow.org.

Albuquerque, 2014: Our population is decreasing and high wage jobs are few and far between.  Our local government has a growing list of projects to construct and a shrinking tax base.  In addition, several indicators in our community have changed since the recession.  These indicators range from people per household to average income to home ownership rate.  All of these changes have not led to changes in how public (and even private) projects are built and prioritized.

One of those indicators is motor vehicle miles traveled per person or per capita VMTthe topic of this article.

Projections vs. Reality

OR

Building It  ≠  They Will Come

This next section is very important.  I’ll call it “How Cities Decide to Build More Roads” or “The Road Gods“.

Municipal traffic engineering departments base road construction priorities around something called a Traffic Demand Model (TDM).  TDMs are computer simulations that calculate projected amounts of motor vehicles + population + other indicators on city roadways.  Based on the results of these models, the Road Gods then decide which roads should be built, expanded or kept as is.

In the words of a local government staff person:

The City uses traffic projections to plan their projects. They are not looking at past traffic patterns but the modeled traffic demand in 2035.

This is an imperfect system to begin with because it does not consider scenarios such as “what if we build LESS lanes?” or “what if we just added sidewalks and bike lanes on every road instead?”

However, since the mid-2000s, these models have become extremely outdated and irrelevant.  They are leading to decisions which are having a dramatic negative effect on our local transportation infrastructure.

People Are Driving Less

Below is a chart that captures one aspect of the social changes occurring in the United States today:

The black line signifies vehicle miles traveled per person in the United States.
The black line signifies vehicle miles traveled per person in the United States.

As the red arrow demonstrates, driving “peaked” in 2004.  In case people think that this is a temporary trend, below is another chart, which correlates VMT with recessions:

The dark shaded areas represent recessions.
The dark shaded areas represent recessions.

This chart captures a growing trend in America: not driving.  Americans across the demographic spectrum are simply not driving as much as they used to.

What About New Mexico?  We Drive a Lot Here! 

This is true, but our trends reflect some of the national trends.  Below is a chart, which reflects these changes:

This chart reflects the declining automobile usage rates in the ABQ metro region.  In Albuquerque itself, the declines are far more significant.
This chart reflects the declining automobile usage rates in the ABQ metro region. In Albuquerque itself, the declines are far more significant.

As you can see, driving has declined or stayed flat every year since 2004, in our metro area.  Also, the declines in Bernalillo County (the location of Osuna Road) are far more significant than those in other surrounding counties.  For example, the chart below shows these differences.  These variations reflect development patterns in the newer more suburban portions of the Albuquerque metro area.

People in Bernalillo County drive far less than those in surrounding counties.
People in Bernalillo County drive far less than those in surrounding counties.

As you can see in the chart above, residents of Albuquerque drive half as many miles per day as people who live in Los Lunas or Belen.

So, what’s the point?

The problem:

We are making transportation infrastructure decisions with outdated models which do not reflect behavioral changes!

We now return to Osuna Road, Albuquerque, NM.

The red line symbolizes the area that is proposed for widening.  Here is a link to the Google MyMap: http://bit.ly/ZpJyO0.
The red line symbolizes the area that is proposed for widening. Here is a link to the Google MyMap: http://bit.ly/ZpJyO0.

Osuna is an interesting road.  It starts as a major arterial with an interstate highway off-ramp and eventually dwindles down to a minor neighborhood street.  During the early 2000s, traffic counts were increasing dramatically, but recently, they have dropped to early 1990s levels.

According to the regional TIP (transportation improvement program), Osuna is listed as an approved project.  The TIP goes through a hypothetically public process, though mid day meetings, which are not heavily advertised hardly count as such.

This screenshot is page 117 of the TIP, linked here: http://mrcogshare.org/MPO/Section5.pdf
This screenshot is page 117 of the TIP, linked here: http://mrcogshare.org/MPO/Section5.pdf

Below is a chart of traffic counts on Osuna Road between I-25 and 2nd Street, the segment which the City of Albuquerque is trying to expand:

The data points on this chart are averages of the numbers counted on the portion of the corridor recommended for expansion.
The data points on this chart are averages of the numbers counted on the portion of the corridor recommended for expansion.

Look familiar?  It is a mirror of the national trend from the chart earlier in the article.

AND HERE LIES THE PROBLEM: Osuna is currently high on the list of proposed road widening projects in the City of Albuquerque.  According to vehicle count data from the MRCOG website, Osuna currently experiences little to no congestion.  For example, Central Avenue currently handles 30,000 vehicles per day with two lanes in each direction so there is hardly a need for 3 lanes on Osuna, which currently averages 22,000 vehicles/day.

Some may argue that this is a temporary trend.  I have three responses:

1. Below is a chart of transit ridership in ABQ metro area over the past decade:

This chart captures the changing travel behavior occurring in the ABQ metro area.
This chart captures the changing travel behavior occurring in the ABQ metro area.

As you can see, transit ridership in the Duke City has almost doubled since 2004.

Many of those motor vehicle trips seen in previous years are never coming back.

2. Osuna is not a regionally important road.  By this I mean that it does not cross the Rio Grande River and it never will.  As a result, it is unlikely that high traffic counts will return to Osuna at any point in the near future.

3. The next generation is not driving as much.  The chart below, which was taken from a regional survey performed by the Mid-Region Council of Governments in New Mexico, demonstrates this fact:

This chart highlights the fact that overall, younger people are driving almost half as much and half as far as other generations.  High youth unemployment only accounts for a portion of this behavioral change and it reflects national trends.
This chart highlights the fact that overall, younger people are driving significantly less than other generations. High youth unemployment only accounts for a portion of this behavioral change and it reflects national trends.

But that’s not even the point.

The question I pose to you, the reader:

Why is this $7 million road widening project a high city priority?

Aren’t there more pressing projects to which this funding should be allocated, projects which would lead to much higher return on investment (ROI)?

The answer is YES, there are.

In my next article, I will discuss projects which should be a higher priority and how it all relates to our local economy.

TAKE ACTION! 

Call or email your local elected official and tell them that widening Osuna Road is an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars.

  • Department of Municipal Development (DMD) head, Michael Riordian (DMD is responsible for road construction here in Albuquerque):

Email – mriordan@cabq.gov

Phone – (505) 768-3830

  • Official DMD contact person:

Name: Mark Motsko
Phone: (505) 768-3832
Fax: (505) 768-2310

Email: mmotsko@cabq.gov

  • Osuna is located in Council District 4, where the City Councilor is Brad Winter.

Contact info:

Email – bwinter@cabq.gov

Twitter – @_Brad_Winter

Policy Analyst contact info:

Name -Jessica Gonzales
Email – jessicagonzales@cabq.gov
Phone – (505) 768-3101

I also encourage you to contact your own councilor.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when elected officials receive 10+ calls or emails about an issue, it becomes a high priority.

Thanks for reading!