The state of New Mexico has awarded contracts for four highway reconstruction projects to be funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Gov. Bill Richardson said this week.

Construction on the projects, worth a total of nearly $50 million, is scheduled to start within 30 days.

Among the projects is U.S. 491, the main north-south thoroughfare through the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation. The highway, which has earned a variety of notorious nicknames, is among the most dangerous in the United States.

Construction began on the road formerly called U.S. 666, or the "Highway to Hell," almost a year ago. The ground-breaking ceremony occurred last May, signaling a $100 million collaboration between the state and the Navajo Nation to widen the two-lane corridor to four lanes. The agreement came after a nearly four-year struggle over rights-of-way and state funding.

A compromise calling for the Nation to contribute $10 million in cash and in-kind donations was reached in January 2008, just months before construction began.

Stimulus money, however, will not be used for the widening project. The state Department of Transportation awarded $8.9 million for rehabilitation of a portion of the two-lane highway, spokesman S.U. Mahesh said.

"We're just improving the existing lanes," he said. "We're not using the money for the widening."

Crews are instructed to complete the rehabilitation project on the 14-mile strip north of Tohatchi within 12 months.


Advertisement

"These construction projects will have an immediate impact on creating good jobs for New Mexicans," Richardson said in a prepared statement. "We have set an aggressive schedule to utilize every stimulus dollar available for road projects, and we will also be prepared to go after any additional money that becomes available."

State money for the widening project comes from Governor Richardson's Investment Partnership, or GRIP, funds, but state and Nation officials have long predicted a shortfall in the funds.

Richardson appropriated $125 million in GRIP money in 2003 to improve the two-lane highway, but a series of disputes between the state and the Nation prevented progress. The impasse included issues of taxation, easement rights and a monetary contribution from the Nation.

Robert Ortiz, deputy secretary of operations for the Department of Transportation, previously told The Daily Times the cost of construction has increased by as much as 70 percent since 2003.

Twenty percent of the original $125 million already was spent to construct two bridges that have not yet been used. The remaining $100 million falls far short of the estimated cost of $260 million.

The original 2003 construction plan called for modification of the existing two lanes by putting in passing lanes and other improvements, Ortiz said. But the scope of the project changed to double the width of the entire highway.

When the state and Nation came to an agreement last year, the entities also agreed to move forward with construction until funds run out, hoping additional funding would come in as needed, Ortiz said.

The slumping economy, however, leaves little room for extra cash, Mahesh said. The Nation is taking advantage of the stimulus money to start work on a shovel-ready project.

"We have a shortfall in GRIP funding, so we are doing this one segment with stimulus money," Mahesh said. "There is still a shortfall in completing the entire (widening) project."

Other state projects receiving stimulus money include U.S. 62/180 from the Texas state line to Carlsbad; N.M. 128 from the junction of N.M. 31 and the Texas state line; and U.S. 84/285 between the Dreamcatcher Interchange and EspaƱola.

Alysa Landry:

alandry@daily-times.com