“The Big I”: Looming Over Albuquerque, NM

[Essay originally written for CRP 1100, “The American City” at Cornell University, taught by Professor Richard Booth, October 2018.]

By the 1990s, it was clear that a serious issue plagued the interchange between Interstate 40 and Interstate 25 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The interchange, referred to as the “Big I” by local residents, was originally completed in 1966 and designed for a capacity of 40,000 vehicles per day. In 1998, the interchange was being forced to accommodate over 300,000 vehicles daily: exceeding capacity by nearly ten times its intended amount. This shocking congestion led to the Big I reconstruction project which took place between the summer of 2000 and the spring of 2002.

I-25 and I-40, both constructed as part of the Federal Aid-Highway Act, were and are vital to Albuquerque on a commercial and local level in the areas of travel, shipment, and commuting. Its congestion and the issues that arose alongside this congestion could not remain unaddressed. The interchange was clearly unsafe, suffering a much higher-than-average accident rate. Excessive interstate traffic also increased vehicle emissions, thus adversely affecting air quality. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement regarding the I-25/I-40 Interchange, submitted by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department, attributed these issues to a number of operational deficiencies on the interchange.

The reconstruction incorporated a number of projects to increase efficiency along the interchange. These included “widening the two interstate corridors in each direction through the interchange, replacing ramps, reconstructing adjacent interchanges and adding new frontage roads, and the design of 55 multi-level bridge structures (45 new and 10 reconstructed or rehabilitated)” (Verdict Media Limited). Among the new bridges were steel girder bridges, which carry the roadway load to supports at each end of the bridge. The refurbished stacked system could hold a staggering 400,000 cars per day. The cost of the project came out to an approximate total of $239 million.

The FHWA New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department Draft Environmental Statement divided the possible consequences of the project, both positive and negative, into two categories: direct impacts (those which occur both during the project and at the site of the project) and indirect impacts (those which are caused by the project but occur at a different time and/or location than the project itself). Examples of direct impacts include noise and habitat destruction, while examples of indirect impacts include off-site traffic and air quality effects.

There were a significant number of direct impact concerns related to the reconstruction work between 2000 and 2002. Foremost were major concerns regarding the project’s impact on local businesses. Daniel Love, manager, at the time, of the Waffle House on the corner of Candelaria at I-25, reported in the Albuquerque Journal in July of 2000 that considerably fewer customers were frequenting the diner due to ramp closures during construction. Understandably, businesses such as motels, which locate near interstate ramps in order to attract drivers as customers, had cause for concern about closures. While some business owners, including Manish Kholwad of A-1 Motel, expected these losses to be offset by business earned from construction workers, others were not so optimistic.

Another direct impact considered was the issue of safety during construction. Many drivers chose not to slow down near the reconstruction project. Sgt. Tim Rainey of the Albuquerque Police Department Traffic Division reported handing out tremendous numbers of speeding citations daily. Even when citations with doubled fines were incorporated, too many drivers continued traveling at too-high speeds through the dangerous zones, especially in areas where congestion was increased due to road closures and detours.

Albuquerque Sunport employee Tom Kerg and other local citizens were concerned that all attention was being paid to the project and not enough was being paid towards standard road maintenance like repairing potholes along the interstate, therefore threatening drivers’ safety. This was especially of concern during wintertime construction, as potholes are formed during cold weather when water in the pavement freezes and expands, breaking up the asphalt on and below the surface.

While supporters of the project, including some public transportation officials such as former state transportation secretary Pete Rahn, acknowledged the difficulties that would arise with such an ambitious undertaking, they also cited a number of positive direct impacts. For example, a great number of jobs would inevitably be brought into New Mexico. Certain construction decisions allowed for maximum use of New Mexico labor — notably, the decision to construct segmental bridges rather than exclusively steel girder bridges increased the use of local labor because New Mexico did not have nearby steel-fabrication shops capable of producing the necessary steel girders for bridges.

Concerns about indirect impacts were just as prevalent and often paralleled direct impacts. The project’s impact on local businesses after its completion, especially the downtown area, were always of major concern. Highways (including their interchanges) are important factors of drive-in culture and suburbanization, and therefore of the decentralization of shopping away from the downtown and central business district. Construction of the original Big I interchange in the 1960s had great adverse effects on Downtown Albuquerque as malls and other shopping centers sprang up with suburban growth. One could only imagine the effect of a larger and more powerful interchange. Nevertheless, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce predicted that the reconstructed interchange would attract a greater number of businesses to Albuquerque.

Another indirect impact considered was the potential adverse effects on the city’s overall safety. Certain theories, especially Jane Jacobs’ theory of street and sidewalk safety, claim that decentralization and the growth of unsurveilled and unsafe “quiet residential areas” (encouraged by transportation projects such as large interchanges) fostered crime on city streets (Jacobs). Today, crime in Albuquerque remains at the forefront of public concern.

Any major physical infrastructure project will inevitably reap both positive and negative consequences, and garner both advocates and opponents. Despite valid concerns, the economic, safety, and environmental issues associated with the Big I pre-reconstruction far outweighed those regarding the project’s possible side effects. Furthermore, much of the discourse opposing this project was better placed in the wider view of an opposition to an automobile-based culture of planning, not as an opposition to this specific project. It is necessary to hold such discourse in a balanced discussion on automobiles and their role in shaping our civilization and urban environment.

A project of this magnitude should reasonably have been completed in 12–18 years. It was, and continues to be, the largest public works project in the history of New Mexico. However, a number of methods were utilized to expedite the completion of the project, which was finished within two years. Time was largely saved in the planning, design, and financing stage thanks to an oversight agreement and special relationship between the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department and the Federal Highway Administration. Because the project was deemed “unique and critical,” approvals for “bridges, design exceptions, bid plans, specifications, and estimates” were expedited by the FHWA (Brach, 2003). Additionally, due to the FHWA’s close involvement, issues regarding construction and design which arose over the course of the project were resolved almost immediately.

Following its completion, the project was deemed economically beneficial. Figures provided by project officials showed that labor payroll and benefits from the project “injected more than $80 million into the local economy” (Jojola, 2002). A 2002 study by the American Highway Users Alliance estimated $10 billion in benefits to metro drivers (fuel saving, time saving, etc.) in the 20 years following reconstruction.

Ultimately, the decision to reconstruct the Big I interchange was both reasonable and responsible. Issues with the interchange were bound to persist and grow as the driving population of Albuquerque continued to increase. The structure of the project, including the unique collaboration with the FHWA, allowed for an extremely smooth and responsible process, and many of the public’s concerns were thus minimized. Designs and plans were thorough in evaluating physical, social, and environmental consequences of the reconstruction and ensuring that the project was, to the best of its abilities, in public favor. The massive success of the project can be seen as a lesson that responsible design and implementation of physical infrastructure projects are absolutely necessary in ensuring efficiency in a growing city. The project also shows very clearly the importance of collaborative creativity within projects, seen in the Big I reconstruction through the unique relationship between the FHWA and the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department. By working together in such a unique collaboration, wasted time was reduced in the planning and construction phases, and therefore the inevitable negative direct impacts that occur during these phases were minimized.


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Cornell University Alum. Urbanism and housing justice. Writer and violinist. Albuquerque, NM.

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Hannah Faulwell

Cornell University Alum. Urbanism and housing justice. Writer and violinist. Albuquerque, NM.