July 17, 2008

Bridge Raises Eyebrows

By Juan-Carlos Rodriguez Journal Staff Writer

A $187,000 ditch crossing in the North Valley has raised the hackles of some conservancy district board members.

The recently completed bridge over the Griegos Lateral was built mostly with state funds appropriated to Bernalillo County by Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, but its design and construction were licensed by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

Some MRGCD board members have expressed concern because $112,000 of the funding came from money Feldman had directed to the Ditches With Trails project. The remainder came from $50,000 in a previous legislative appropriation and $25,000 came from county impact fees.

Ditches With Trails aims to combine public and private resources to preserve and enhance the existing ditch trail system in the North and South valleys. The MRGCD, the county, the city of Albuquerque, the National Park Service and many community members have participated in formulating the project. So far, although public meetings were held last December, no formal plan has been released.

In 2005, the MRGCD passed a resolution regarding Ditches With Trails agreeing "to participate in a pilot project to study the feasibility of developing two prototype canal/ drain trails ...."

At a Monday MRGCD board meeting, members Janet Jarratt and Jim Roberts spoke up against the bridge for its cost and the use of Ditches With Trails funding.

"I thought that ... the only thing the district agreed to with the pilot project was a study, that no actual physical structures would go up without coming before this body with a presentation of the plan for the pilot project. What happened to that?" Jarratt said.

Roberts, responding to complaints about motor traffic on the bridge, said he was also concerned and added the board has not approved any formal Ditches With Trails plan. "If this bridge was put up as part of a pilot project, let's just play devil's advocate and say the (Ditches With Trails) project was not accepted, these folks are still staring at this bridge," Roberts said.

Roberts said he was part of early discussions about a bridge over the lateral.

The initial $50,000 in funding for the bridge came from Feldman, who sought a proper bridge after local doctor Patrick McKinney died attempting to ride his bike across a narrow wooden crossing over the lateral.

"It was a needed thing," Feldman said. "It's for people that walk and use those ditches. It's a convenience and it's also an amenity."

Roberts said his impression was the bridge would only cost the $50,000 Feldman appropriated and would be an arched wooden walkway.

Instead, the bridge ended up being a concrete and steel structure that had to be brought in by crane.

Because power lines were in the way of the crane, the county had to spend $65,000 -- included in the total cost of $187,000 -- to have the Public Service Company of New Mexico put the lines underground.

MRGCD board and staff members appear to have differing interpretations of the 2005 resolution.

Subhas Shah, the MRGCD's chief engineer, said at Monday's meeting the Griegos Lateral bridge project was not technically a Ditches With Trails project because it was created to memorialize McKinney, and that is why the license was approved.

Asked how that could be if Ditches With Trails funding was used, district spokesman Dennis Domrzalski said it came down to reading the resolution.

"The resolution appears to permit some projects. Whether that was a misinterpretation will be up to the board to decide," Domrzalski said. "If the board only approved a study, then the use of that money would be improper."

Feldman said the money is the county's to spend.

"I'm sorry that the conservancy district is trying to put the bridge in a negative light," Feldman said.

The MRGCD board will hear a presentation on the Ditches With Trails project at its July 28 meeting and probably will make a decision whether to continue it.

Jarratt said the funding situation might not be acceptable.

"If the money's somehow been mixed up and has been used to authorize more actions under Ditches With Trails than we have approved, that might be a reason to terminate that license," Jarratt said.

The cost bothered Roberts.

"It's a tremendous waste of money," Roberts said in an interview Wednesday.

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