The idea to build a road connecting the Sunport with Rio Bravo Blvd started back in the late 1980s. But county planners back then ran into a roadblock: the street would need to cut through the South Valley Superfund site just west of I-25 where the Environmental Protection Agency was busy cleaning up groundwater contamination from weapons factories that used to be there.
Now, Bernalillo County Engineer Rodrigo Eichwald says "it’s 25 years later, and most of the pollution that was found has been taken care of and so now this area is ready for reconstruction."
Reconstructing the area will mean rerouting the plumbing of the the Superfund cleanup project to make room for the new street. The county hopes the road will connect the nearby industrial area to the highway, cut transportation costs and attract new businesses to the area.
At a public hearing Wednesday night, that sounded like a good idea to some people in the neighborhood. But others worried the road would bring high traffic and new polluting industries to an area already overburdened by industrial contamination.
Bernalillo County Commissioner Art De La Cruz says the road is a fantastic idea, because it will bring more businesses—and more job opportunities—to an economically depressed part of his district.
"One of the things about the South Valley is that we’ve been largely a bedroom community," De La Cruz said. "And so during my tenure I’ve been working aggressively to try to bring employment opportunities. This is one more effort towards that end. We’ve already had some good development in the area, [now] we’re going to get even better development."
But the idea of more development coming here makes a lot of people nervous.
The new road will run through an area that’s zoned for heavy industry, and a lot of Bernalillo County’s air and water pollution comes from current and past businesses here. Today there are gas storage farms, chemical distributors and asphalt plants.
Residents like Esther Abeyta say pollution from those types of companies has led to high rates of asthma and other illnesses, and worry the county’s push for more business in this area will make those problems worse.
"The project is going to affect us in so many ways, health-wise," Abeyta said. "It’s going to change this community for the rest of its life."
Abeyta, who is president of the San Jose Neighborhood Association, says most people in the neighborhood didn’t even know about the plans to build a new road here until very recently. She filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA, saying the county had violated federal laws requiring community input on projects like this.
In response, Bernalillo County extended the public comment period for the project and planners there say they‘re listening to what the community has to say. They say they’re aware that low income neighborhoods in this area have been dealing with more than their fair share of environmental issues over the years.
"Definitely we have an environmental justice population there," said Peter Hinckley, one of the lead engineers on the Sunport extension project. He says there will be changes in traffic, and probably more businesses in the area because of the road. But he says that won’t put a burden on people living nearby.
"In general we’ve addressed all those elements and concluded that there’s not a disproportionate impact to this population," he said.
Hinckley says the county will address traffic increases by improving other roads nearby. And planners are promising to use the road to promote clean business.
The public comment period ends next month. Then the project will go on to the Federal Highway Administration for approval.
But opponents are vowing to keep fighting against the Sunport Blvd extension. They say even one more source of pollution in the San Jose neighborhood is something people here just can’t afford.