Union Plaza Buses+Country Club Traffic=Unhappy Public at Council
by David Crowder
Posted on April 9, 2008
Downtown residents and business people were upset with the El Paso's City Council majority, as were residents of the Upper Valley who attended Tuesday's grueling all-day session.
The council's four-member majority seemed to have few allies in the audience as they gave the go-ahead for a $597,000 traffic study of the Upper Valley over objections from four neighborhood associations and then gave another go-ahead to the completion of plans for moving the Downtown transit hub from San Jacinto Plaza to the Union Plaza Transit Terminal. [april 7, 2008 npt background]
During public comment, Council members and a large audience also heard wrenching tales told by a couple now living in Austin about the 2006 raid on their El Paso home by police looking for their son, whom they had taken to jail to turn himself in on robbery charges four days earlier.
More Then Just A Traffic Study
Suspicion was behind the surprisingly stiff opposition by Save the Valley and three other neighborhood associations to what appeared to be a routine proposal from the city staff for a detailed traffic study that could cost up to $647,000.
Save the Valley President Mary Frances Keisling and other leaders expressed concerns that the study would somehow accelerate changes already taking place at a fast pace in an area known for irrigated cotton farms, horses in sprawling back-yard pastures, expensive homes and new subdivisions coming up like weeds.
Specifically, the leaders said they think the study will give the city the statistical ammunition to justify pushing forward with a proposal to widen the two-lane Country Club Road to a five-land arterial, and with a previously abandoned Redd Road bridge over the Rio Grande.
And, they said, it would serve the developing areas just across the New Mexico state line by giving those residents better access to El Paso at the expense of old neighborhoods in the Valley.
East Valley Rep. Eddie Holguin questioned why he had to work through a two-year process to win approval for a study of traffic patterns in the Mission Valley while the request for the Upper Valley study has circumvented that process and raced to City Council with a recommendation for 100 percent local funding.
Traffic Director Ted Marquez said the proposal for a $1 million, Mission Valley study -- 80 percent federally funded because it went through and was approved by the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization -- will be coming to council for approval later this month.
South West Rep. Beto O'Rourke joined others in asking questioned why the study would so much.
City Engineer Alan Shubert said it is because it will be "a huge study" of a large area.
The cost of the Upper Valley study became the point of attack by opposing council members and neighborhood leaders who wanted to know why the city couldn't route the study through the Metropolitan Planning Organization in hopes of gaining access to federal funds.
Streets Director Daryl Cole said the MPO is interested in traffic flows and counts on major streets and freeways but not on small, neighborhood streets.
"This takes in all traffic movements and projects them into the future and takes land use into account, which the MPO wouldn't," Cole said. "It's the only way to get a full view of the whole thing."
Seeking approval through the MPO would also be time consuming and would take eight to 12 months before the study would be as ready for approval as it was Tuesday, he said.
City Engineer Alan Shubert said the pressing issue is the fact that the El Paso Water Utilities' Public Service Board plans to replace the failing, 35-year-old sewer lines that lie 15 feet under Country Club Road -- a project that will close portions of the road for a year and require that it be completely rebuilt with curbs and sidewalks.
The only question will be how many lanes will Country Club Road need and that, Shubert said, is a big reason for the traffic study.
Keisling said the four neighborhood associations are opposed to cost of the study, especially because the city has performed other traffic studies of the area in recent years.
"Given the lack of city revenues to meet high priority items such as drainage and FEMA compliance, how can this expense be justified?" she said. "Why are El Pasoans being asked to pay the total cost of this study? It is obvious that after this study, you will come back to us and ask us to be good neighbors while you are destroying El Paso neighborhoods so those who live in Sunland Park, Santa Teresa and who plan to build near Santa Teresa will have an easier time getting home.
"You are, in essence, being asked to spend almost three quarters of a million dollars to develop a tool to railroad the taxpayers of El Paso for the convenience of New Mexicans."
O'Rourke said he could not explain why traffic studies are so expensive and brushed aside the charge that that city traffic engineers and planners might be supporting major road improvements in the Upper Valley to benefit New Mexican residents.
He said the city will have to decide how to accommodate the rapid growth of the Upper Valley and whether Country Club Road should be rebuilt with two-lanes, three or five, as traffic engineers have proposed.
O'Rourke voted for the motion to authorize the study along with West Side Rep. Ann Lilly, West Central Rep. Susie Byrd and Eastridge/Mid-Valley Rep. Steve Ortega.
Opposing it were Holguin, Northeast Rep. Melina Castro, East Side Rep. Rachel Quintana, all of whom opposed the cost and wanted the city to pitch the study to the MPO.
Moving Buses to Union Plaza
Just as no one from the public spoke up for the need of that traffic study, no one offered the council majority a word of support for the proposal to move the Downtown transit terminal from the streets around San Jacinto Plaza several blocks away to the little used Union Plaza Transit Terminal.
The terminal was built some years ago with more than $8 million in federal transit funds to establish a park-and-ride system in conjunction with the city's Downtown rubber-tired trolleys.
The idea, as pitched by the Goodman Corp. and bought by a prior City Council along with the federal government, was to have shoppers or workers drive Downtown, park in the garage, and catch a 25-cent trolley.
But they never came, and the best use the three-story parking garage gets is on weekend nights by young Union Plaza night club patrons.
The proposed change in use would involve remodeling the interior and exterior of the terminal to accommodate the 750 to 1,500 passengers an hour.
The cost of the remodeling and the addition of 16 to 20 on-street bus positions, driveways, loading docks, pedestrian and passenger amenities is estimated at $2.4 million.
"We don't see any inherent flaws in Union Plaza," Sun Metro consultant Mike McAnelly said. "We don't see any negatives."
But Mike Breitinger, executive director of the Central Business Association, said the Downtown businesses in the San Jacinto Plaza area have plenty of concerns about the business they will lose when the people and buses are gone.
"How does this create economic opportunity?" he said. "I can't find anybody who has a lot of confidence in this plan today.
"I would ask you to reconsider approving this today."
Ray Mancera, a businessman, lobbyist and former head of the City Plan Commission, said just because the city has an asset in the Union Plaza terminal doesn't mean the city has to use it.
He recommended several other potential sites for the terminal and for the international and inter-city bus companies, which the city wants to move from their various locations Downtown to Union Depot, the 1905 train depot that sits on 13 acres west of City Hall.
Gilbert Guillen, president of the Union Plaza Land Owners Association, said moving the Downtown bus hub to the Union Plaza area would have little positive impact but would affect the 650 people who live in the area and would have to deal with traffic, noise, pollution and crowds.
"One-hundred percent of the business owners are opposed," Guillen said.
The real reason for the change, he speculated, is that the new property owners around San Jacinto Plaza, notably Paul Foster, CEO of Western Refining, who is investing heavily in Downtown properties, "don't want to see Mexicans, the elderly and senior citizens."
He later added veterans to the group.
Responding to questions about why the move is necessary, Byrd offered what she said is a big reason in her mind for moving the buses away from San Jacinto Plaza.
"It should be a great park, but it's not a park, it's a transit terminal," she said. "It's not compatible land uses. It's noisy and there are buses all around.
"Now it is quiet. People are using it as a park space."
Because of street work in the area, the buses have been moved away from San Jacinto to Franklin Street near the new History Museum.
The council, after hearing from concerned business owners, set aside a proposal to temporarily close a two-block section of Franklin to all vehicles except city buses because officials see conditions there as a dangerous mix of buses, pedestrians and passenger vehicles.
The vote to move ahead with the Union Plaza terminal project passed 5-2 with Quintana and Holguin voting no and Castro absent. The motion included spending $158,000 to finish the designs for remodeling the Union Plaza passenger terminal.
Mayor John Cook cast his vote in favor of the move, joining Lilly, Byrd, Ortega and O'Rourke.
David Crowder can be reached at email@example.com and 351-0605 .
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