BLOOMFIELD —Business owners along U.S. 64 got an early Christmas present last week when highway workers removed the orange cones that have slowed and diverted traffic for two years.
For the first time since the multimillion-dollar project began over two years ago, the highway – W. Broadway as it is named in Bloomfield – is officially finished.
Gone is the parade of construction detour signs and the familiar sight of road workers and equipment lining the corridor.
But for Fernando Reyes, the newly opened road feels more like a lump of coal in the bottom of his stocking.
Owner of the Chihuahua Tortilla Factory, Reyes said the project nearly did him in.
“My business declined 80 percent over the last 24 months,” he said. “I lost my other business, my carniceria, which used to sell meats next door.”
That business closed just four months after construction began in January of 2010.
“Somebody should have done something to help the small businesses,” he said. “I am not a corporation. I’m still in hot water.”
The Mexican-American small business owner said that for months a six-foot high rampart of dirt piles blocked access to his factory and restaurant, costing him income.
Nearby Sonic Restaurant took the opportunity during the construction to remodel, Reyes said, something he could hardly afford to do.
“Smart move on their part,” he said, “But I am not a big player like them.”
But what irks Reyes the most is the lack of accountability.
“Nobody wants to take responsibility,” he said. “I went to City Hall, I talked with the mayor, and all I got was that it’s a state project. So I call the state they say it’s a federally funded project. It goes on and on like that,” he said.
City officials could not be reached for comment. The New Mexico Department of Transportation responded to several requests for comment with an email that referred to its website. At one point in his quest for answers from government officials, Reyes said he was told he was on his own.
Ultimately, Reyes decided to keep his doors open, hoping for better days ahead.
“I’m 61 and I asked myself, ‘Should I retire early or use my retirement savings and stick it out?’ I chose to stay open.”
So far, business has improved by 10 percent, he said. And Reyes hired two employees this year to replace the 13 he formerly had on staff to cook, run the short-order counter, wait tables and make tortillas.
Without distribution keeping his tortillas in the market, Reyes said he would not be able to continue. Each day, his factory can produce 1,000 tortillas, which Reyes proudly claims are “the best tortillas in the state of New Mexico.”
Reyes’ pride in his product endures, but his belief in the American dream is permanently tarnished. A proud New Mexican for 30 years, he feels small businesses like his were given short shrift during the project.
“As far as I am concerned, they’re not done yet,” Reyes said on the road project. “The road is open, but the medians have closed off access to so many places. It’s not safe and can’t be the end of the story.”
Reyes cited the post office across the highway lacking an access point as an obvious mistake.
“What you have now is the Indy 500, the traffic going so fast with the additional lane,” he said. “But you also have people constantly making U-turns, which is far from safe with opposing traffic coming at you at high speed.”
Mechanic Mike Librande agrees.
“Every single business is compromised here,” he said. “While it’s nice to see sidewalks, bike lanes, and a sweet third traffic lane, the medians combined with the lack of access turns make it an accident waiting to happen and a headache trying to get places.”
Librande pointed to the 35 miles per hour limit sign and laughed. “Do you see anybody going under 35?”
In the first issue of Bits & Pieces, the city’s newsletter, City Manager David Fuqua responded to “numerous calls concerning frustration over the Hwy. 64 project” City Hall received.
“We also wish we could go back to the way it was with having more access points to businesses, but that just is not going to happen,” Fuqua wrote.
He cited the lack of an access point in the median in front of the post office as a source of constant complaint.
The long, impermeable medians trouble Librande and Reyes. Librande said he already feels the added expense at the pump.
“That extra eighth of a mile I have to take to get anyplace now means money out of my pocket.”
For now, Reyes is resigned to continue, but he is wary of beginning another year with conditions as they currently exist. What he will do is keep his doors open and speak out.
“If I don’t speak up for small businesses around here, who will?”