Like most places in America, there are things you can’t do in Farmington, NM for a while: Enjoy dinner at your favorite restaurant. Go to the movies. See your dentist. Work out at your gym. Have an IPA at Three Rivers Brewery. Or get a haircut.
But here in this city of 45,000 at the extreme Northwestern corner of New Mexico, are a few things you still can do: Choke a perfectly functioning Main Street from four lanes down to only two. Rip out all the asphalt, leaving bare dirt for months. Stick four roundabouts in a six-block stretch. And spend $9.2 million of taxpayer dollars in the process.
Ironically, Farmington calls this the Complete Streets Project. According to city spokesperson Georgette Allen, this massive disruption qualifies as an infrastructure project, so it’s considered essential business, and exempt from the governor’s public health emergency order, which led to the shutdown of nonessential businesses and activities.
Unfortunately, people like Ms. Allen and the city government she works for actually seem to believe that destroying their village will save it.
It’s all part of a larger pattern that I call The War on Cars. To many local governments and the city planning firms that feed on them, it’s almost a holy war. It’s part of a climate-change driven agenda whose advocates say we should live in tiny apartments in vibrant, walkable downtowns that are connected to each other by planet-friendly trains.
I have enough experience with this phenomenon to last two lifetimes. In 2012, the city council of Cotati CA, my former home town, decided to impose a nearly identical plan. They wanted to slice a five-lane city street into a two-lane street with two roundabouts only 600 feet apart. The residents hated it. The local businesses were livid. One business scrapped their plans to build a large supermarket/retail/business complex on a weedy lot at the town’s Northern Gateway.
A local businesswoman, Patti Minnis, started a ballot initiative to ban roundabouts within the city limits. I helped as campaign treasurer, and wrote many articles against it in The Cotati Independent, a newspaper published by former council member George Barich. The measure won by 57%, and today, Cotati is the only US city where roundabouts are illegal.
But back to Farmington. They’re not far from Four Corners and the Navajo Nation, so you’d think an old Western town like this wouldn’t be gulled by blue state California values and overpriced city planning consultants who sell the same cookie-cutter plans everywhere. But unfortunately, they went for it.
On Jan 6, the city blocked off three blocks of Main Street, and turned the heavy equipment loose. Where there used to be Dodge Rams, Honda Civics, and Harleys flowing through Main Street like blood in its veins, now there are Road Closed signs, cyclone fences, and lonesome cash registers. If the stay-at-home order is lifted on April 30, it won’t help the Main Street businesses, because access to them will remain blocked till at least June 10.
Ten days after the project began, the owner of Three Rivers Brewery on the closed street claimed it was their worst day of business in 20 years. For the owner of a neighboring diner, it was worse. He estimated his lunch business was off by 70%.
Since January 6, Farmington has cut down all the street’s trees, and demolished the “existing streetscape”. On the plus side, they’ve upgraded the water and electrical lines, and built new storm drains. But today, Main Street looks like the dirt street in Dodge City where James Arness used to face down bad guys with black hats on Gunsmoke.
It will look that way for a while. They’ll start repaving on May 7, but won’t be finished till June 10. Then, they’ll start the whole process over on the next stretch of Main Street, and won’t be finished till November 2.
When they’re done, Farmington will never be the same. Those four traffic lanes that were 12 feet wide will now be “right-sized” to two l1-foot wide lanes. And the sidewalks that used to be 10 feet wide will now be 15 feet wide. Plenty of room for two people to walk side by side, and still keep six feet of social distance between them.
That is, if any Main Street businesses survive after being shut down for months. Not by COVID-19, but by this essential project.