SHIPROCK — The New Mexico Department of Transportation deemed a heavily traveled section of U.S. Highway 64 in Shiprock unsafe Wednesday, though the department was unable to say how long it would be before the section would be safe.
After conducting an audit between 2008 and 2010, the department found that the approximately three-mile stretch of the highway is dangerous for both drivers and pedestrians, especially since it is in a school zone.
"We really need to get serious about this," said Viviene Tallbull, chairwoman of the Shiprock Planning Commission.
Tallbull was just one of about 30 community members who gathered with officials from the New Mexico Department of Transportation, or NMDOT, and members of the Navajo Nation Department of Transportation, or NNDOT, at the Shiprock Chapter House on Wednesday.
The majority of the concern stemmed from the section's proximity to several schools, Eva B. Stokely Elementary, Shiprock High School, and Career Prep School. More than 1,000 students attend the schools altogether, according to Central Consolidated School District Director of Operations Wynora Bekis.
While NMDOT has assessed the corridor before, traffic has increased since Dine College opened its eastern campus next door to the district schools.
"We want this done for our kids," said Tallbull.
About 8,000 cars go through the corridor each day, according to the audit, with early mornings and early evenings being the busiest time.
More than 50 car accidents took place in that corridor during the audit period. None of the accidents were fatal, though 52 injuries resulted. One accident in October 2010 left eight people injured. Several of the accidents involved multiple vehicles.
Many of the accidents were minor fender benders, or vehicles driving off of the road to avoid an obstacle, said Robert Luna, project manager for HDR, the engineering company hired by NMDOT to carry out the audit.
Other causes included drivers trying to avoid animals or pedestrians in the road.
The audit listed various solutions to the problems, which endanger students walking to and from school daily. Solutions included improving stripes in the crosswalks, lighting at the roadsides and signing to indicate that caution is needed.
The most expensive, and likely the most effective, improvements suggested were the expansion of the road and the installation of flashing school zone signs.
The audit proposed four plans ranging in cost from $1.4 million to $9.6 million, though local planners indicated that since 2006 they have wanted to go with the third option, which would cost $8.9 million.
The third option would include improving the crosswalks, lighting, and signage. It also would include turning the section into a three-lane area with a left-turn lane near the schools, adding a flashing school zone sign, and installing a sidewalk area for students.
That option, community members said, had been proposed to them in 2006, but with a $6 million price tag. It had not been put into place only because NMDOT and NNDOT could not figure out how to persuade land leaseholders surrounding the stretch to allow road expansion.
The project stalled, and the money was distributed to other projects, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Russell Begaye said.
"That's the critical issue. That's the only issue," Begaye said.
If the state and tribe can allocate funds for the project, the approval of those leaseholders will either make or break the deal, NMDOT and NNDOT officials said. Both sides, however, looked to the other to solve the issue.
"We need a timeline, so we're not sitting here pointing fingers at each other once again," said Margie Begay, a senior planner with the Navajo Tribal Transportation Improvement Program.
NMDOT and NNDOT could not give an exact timeline, however, because the project will be reliant on funding that may not be available. If funding was approved, the state likely could begin in the summer of 2014, according to District 5 NMDOT Technical Support Engineer David Quintana.