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Tribune: Managing Albuquerque's Metro-Area Growth

The following article ran in the Albuquerque Tribune. Read the article online here, including related stories and photos.  

Managing Albuquerque's growth poses challenges with 1 million people projected for 2021

By Erik Siemers
Monday, September 17, 2007
Albuquerque Tribune

Photo Copyright Abq Journal
Photo by Steven St. John / Tribune

Hot-air balloons float on the horizon as dawn breaks in a housing development near the intersection of Paradise and Lyon boulevards Northwest. Growth in and and around Albuquerque is predicted to continue in the next few decades, with metro-area population expected to hit 1 million by 2021 at the latest. The skyline might change, however. Some planners predict Albuquerque - one of the least dense cities in America - might soon start growing upwards as well as outwards.

Hot-air balloons float on the horizon as dawn breaks in a housing development near the intersection of Paradise and Lyon boulevards Northwest. Growth in and and around Albuquerque is predicted to continue in the next few decades, with metro-area population expected to hit 1 million by 2021 at the latest. The skyline might change, however. Some planners predict Albuquerque - one of the least dense cities in America - might soon start growing upwards as well as outwards.

Way out on the West Mesa, the desert is vast and empty. A new building looks like the start of a civilization.

That's exactly how the newly christened Eclipse Aviation Customer Training Center appeared last week: a glistening square set like a ring box on a tarp, a bump surrounded by empty space and a vision of the future.

The building, the fledgling jet-maker's first at Double Eagle II Airport, could symbolize potential - both for the company and for a metropolitan area poised to reach a significant milestone.

It won't be long - about 14 years prognosticators say - before the Albuquerque metropolitan area will reach a population of 1 million.

Public officials and business leaders see companies like Eclipse as catalysts for such radical regional expansion.

But what does the Albuquerque area need to do to prepare?

What does it mean to hit the 1 million mark?

"A million is just a number, theoretically no more superior than 999,999," said Keith Bartholomew, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "But to the extent that it has symbolic value and is indicative of a fast rate of growth, what it provides is a wonderful opportunity and a huge challenge."

Reaching 1 million would put Albuquerque in an exclusive, if growing, club. U.S. Census Bureau data shows about 50 metropolitan statistical areas in 2006 had a million or more people - from New York City's nearly 19 million, to Salt Lake City, which reached the million mark in 2002.

The Albuquerque metro area, now with about 830,000 people, will join the 1 million club sometime in late 2020 or early 2021, according to projections from the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

"The Albuquerque metro is in no way going to slow," said Mark Muro, policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "All the projections we have show continuing fast growth both driven by fast migration and natural increase."

Brookings projects that by 2030, more than 45 percent of all housing units and 63 percent of all commercial and institutional square footage in New Mexico will have been built since 2000 - a measure of the state's rapid growth, the majority of which comes from the Albuquerque metro area.

And between now and 2030, the Albuquerque metro area is projected to spend $1.9 billion just on improving and adding to the region's transportation infrastructure, said Lawrence Rael, executive director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments, a regional transportation planning body.

"That's a significant amount of money, and we're talking about funding that runs the gamut: more capacity on the interstate systems, we're looking at more capacity building on existing infrastructure within the city," Rael said.

Gabriel Nims, executive director of 1,000 Friends of New Mexico, a smart-growth advocacy group, said reaching 1 million people is less important than how we reach that mark.

"The number isn't so (important) as much as if we're living sustainably with the population we have now," Nims said. "That's up for debate." Nims questions whether there will be sufficient change within the next 15 years to accommodate that many more people.

With growth comes questions of sustainability, including the tried-and-true issues of water availability and a need for improved public transit.

But it also spawns newer concerns.

Growth means more people, cars, buildings and, as a result, concerns over air quality, said both Nims and Rael.

Rael said the federal Environmental Protection Agency is proposing new regulations that would put greater pressures on metropolitan areas to be mindful of ozone damage when planning transportation networks and facilitating growth.

That could be especially true for Albuquerque. Of the 100 largest metro areas in the country, Albuquerque ranked 36th in 2005 for the most vehicle miles traveled per capita, according to the Brookings Institution. The metro area's average of 10,620 miles per vehicle ranked higher than the 9,209-mile-per-vehicle national average.

"The new regulations being proposed will put a greater responsibility on all of us in the transportation area on what we can and can't build because of the new standards," Rael said.

There's also the question of growing upward or outward.

To illustrate, consider this Brookings data: Of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, Albuquerque ranks 99th in density. There are only 88 people per square mile in the Albuquerque metro area - a far cry from the national metropolitan average of 467 people per square mile.

"Clearly, business as usual in the region is sort of a diffuse low-density, low-intensity, sometimes planned, mostly not, low-rise quasi-sprawl," said Muro, of the Brookings Institution.

Two of what could be the largest developments the Duke City metro has ever experienced are talking about a different approach.

Both Forest City Covington, developer of 13,000-acre Mesa del Sol in southeast Albuquerque, and SunCal Cos., developer of 55,000 acres on the West Mesa, have employed planners that emphasize the use of mixed-use, mixed-density developments and the preservation of open space.

Without changes in the way the region has developed thus far, elements of which are criticized as urban sprawl, Nims said the region could be in danger.

"If we go down the current pattern of growth, I can almost guarantee you the quality of life in this city will be far more in jeopardy than it is now," Nims said. "To hit a million people respectfully and sustainably, we have to make major changes in how we accommodate growth."

The metro area's anticipated growth has led the Brookings Institution to see it as a test case for how emerging American cities work out growing pains on a regional level.

Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas, Nev., are all being watched by the think tank as part of a major study "arguing that the future of America's development trajectory is being worked out in these places that are full of new construction with much more coming," Muro said.

With so much construction, Muro said, Southwestern cities like Albuquerque show a greater willingness to explore new land-use and building techniques, such as the emerging trend of creating environmentally-friendly building codes.

"I think these places are arriving at serious challenges first. They are going to work out solutions at a major scale," Muro said. "It is a place to pioneer new models. We need large-scale new models in this country with the gravity of changes facing new places."

Not everybody is excited about these changes.

Georgia Tutt is a retired science and math teacher who has lived on the West Side for 15 years. She grew up on a farm in central Texas, and has an affinity for wildlife.

Each evening she sets out a little grain for a flock of pigeons that like to perch on nearby telephone wires and feed on the grain in the mornings. She fears the growing city, and its increased urbanization, might one day force wildlife, like her pigeons, elsewhere.

"I've been on the West Side 15 years. It's changed. There were vacant fields where the rabbits ran around. Like a 100 crows in the winter would lie down and look for something to eat," she said. "Now it's concrete and asphalt.

"It's just one little death at a time. But you can't stop it almost."

And there are some who see the region's potential as unlimited and exciting.

Just before he cut the ribbon on his new building, Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn recalled the moment 15 years ago when he first landed at Double Eagle II.

"Even then, 15 years ago, I thought, `This has potential,' " he said.

As he drove along Paseo del Volcan on his way to the airport last week, past a new Tempur-Pedic mattress plant, past a new Shamrock Foods distribution center, he started to see this land of promise turning into the land of prominence.

"I really started to think," he said, "that this is really going to happen."

Flashpoint: Traffic

The problem: Right now, it's not terrible. An average one-way commute is 21.3 minutes, according to the Census Bureau, compared with 29.6 minutes in Los Angeles or 26.9 in Phoenix. But the city is growing, and new roads might not help. "You just can't build your way out of congestion," said Lawrence Rael of the Mid-Region Council of Governments. "There's not enough land and there's not enough money."

Potential solutions: Better public transportation, planned on a regional level; flexible workplace hours to take the edge off rush hour; telecommuting.

Big hurdles: Public transportation projects can be expensive. Old car-bound habits die hard. "There's a lot of behavior that needs to change," said Cynthia Martin, a transportation demand manager for the University of New Mexico. "People have to get uncomfortable."

Flashpoint: Water

The problem: Supply. Annual water use today for the Albuquerque-Bernalillo Water Utility Authority is 101,000 acre-feet, compared with diversion rights from the San Juan Chama project of 96,000 acre-feet. The difference is made up by pumping groundwater and buying additional surface-water rights.

Potential solutions: Forty percent of annual use in the city comes from outdoor watering. That's a tall glass of water that could be tapped with incentives or mandates to use less. Other possibilities include reusing treated wastewater, capturing rainwater and desalinating brackish water deposits. The city could also buy surface-water rights now devoted to agriculture.

Big hurdles: None of that is cheap or politically easy. The price of water rights has skyrocketed, a trend that's expected to continue.

Flashpoint: Power

The problem: As the metro area grows, so does demand for electricity. Officials from Public Service Company of New Mexico estimate that power capacity will need to double by the year 2020.

Potential solutions: PNM's first focus will be reducing demand by offering incentives to use energy-saving light bulbs and appliances, programmable thermostats, said Brent Rice, PNM's director of innovation and technology. Other ideas include variable pricing - higher prices for electricity used during peak hours.

Big hurdle: Money. Conservation efforts won't keep PNM from the major cost of building new power-generation plants, Rice said. "It's not going to get us where we need to get by itself," he said.

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