The tunnel vision when it comes to the decision to create a safe, efficient and attractive crossing for pedestrians and bicyclists crossing St. Francis Drive between the bifurcated sections of the Railyard has nothing to do with the actual tunnel under consideration. Rather, it refers to the narrow scope of vision presented to the public.
The four options as presented are:
• Do nothing. Allow the poorly designed intersection at St. Francis Drive and Cerrillos Road (which should have had more substantive improvements in tandem with the Rail Runner construction) to continue to exist as a fine place to hurl bottles and fast food bags at protesters and political campaigners while cyclists, pedestrians and families with toddlers and strollers perform a perverse reenactment of Death Race 2000. Meanwhile, the transient population snickers and takes bets on who will crash their bikes, wet their pants or lose control of children while streaking across four lanes of traffic with PT Cruisers, big rigs and dopey Priuses bearing down on them.
• Create an “at-grade” crossing. Essentially, this means making improvements such that fit pedestrians and regular bicycle commuters feel happy and safe crossing St. Francis. To hell with the children and families—it’s still survival of the fittest in an asphalt arena—and how important is seamless connectivity anyway? Despite a rather eloquent defense by some in attendance at a July 9 public input session, including local, sensible urban designer Roy Wroth, this option remains fast, cheap and retarded.
• Design and build an overpass bridge. Actually more like an overpass Leviathan. The thing would have to be so long just to get it to an acceptable 5 percent grade—still pretty steep, but, presumably, it would prevent recreational and casual cyclists from dying in the attempt—that models and artist renderings make it look like a giant eel rising from the depths of the nearby PNM superfund site, en route to consume children in the Railyard Park (and, with luck, Whole Foods shoppers). Local architect Alexander Dzurec, of Autotroph Design, delivered a damned near inspirational statement on how, despite local evidence to the contrary, it is possible to build an attractive functional bridge. But it’s a tough sell due not only to the monstrous length and steep climb, but also the inevitable need to surround the crossing with a tightly woven mesh in order to prevent fun-loving kids and bitter old men from hurling bricks into the windshields of the drivers below.
• Finally, there is the prospect of an actual tunnel. The concerns here are bountiful. It is the most expensive option and the most challenging engineering-wise. The tunnel would mess with traffic flow for a prolonged period during construction. The tunnel would demand rerouting extensive utilities infrastructure. The tunnel would punch a whole right through the acequia. The tunnel would allegedly (although not necessarily factually) be a maintenance nightmare, a perpetual drainage problem, an icy death trap in the winter, a magnet for crime and a 24-hour non-stop party palace for the homeless. Plus, it’s so much less exciting for the artist team that the Santa Fe Arts Commission hired to spruce things up—it’s easy to get arty with a bridge, less so with a tunnel. But the tunnel is bitchin.’
Rather than guide the powers that be in selecting an option, the assembled public was more interested, and justifiably so, in why there were no plans for the much heavier used Rail Trail to cross Cerrillos Road. But this is one of the many areas where planners and designers exhibited tunnel vision. There was wanton use of the term “connectivity” but no big picture of the networked trail system, which would have made it easy enough to see that a safe at-grade crossing—using “smart signals” that recognize bicycles—can be installed at the new traffic light at Alta Vista Street, thus dropping the Rail Trail into the Railyard and directing bicycles and pedestrians over the St. Francis crossing.
Also, there was a lot of talk about the homeless problem. But, of course, that never refers to the problem of people not having homes, it only refers to the problem of having to look at them. Rather than attract the transient population, these improvements—even a tunnel—are going to displace this particular breed of part-time residents. But no one knows where to or has even bothered to think about it. Tunnel vision indeed.
Nonetheless, the tunnel is the best choice, once we drop the fear of troglodytes, prostitutes and the dark. Once a decision has been made (and the consensus is that the powers that be heavily favor the overpass bridge), there will be a design charette, at which the public will give input on potential aesthetic concerns and some engineering details. I hope to hell there will be an actual designer present somewhere in between the artists and engineers.
The tunnel is an opportunity for flowing, discreet utility, elegant elevation shifts, good design and smart engineering. How about visually watching the acequia flow through a tube embedded in the tunnel wall? How about wide, easy-draining landscape work spread out to the sides of the actual path? How about a central skylight that makes you want to bring along a chair and sit there, beneath the thrum of traffic, nursing an espresso?