Aztec City Manger, Joshua Ray speaks to a reporter on Wednesday, April 24, 2013.
Aztec City Manger, Joshua Ray speaks to a reporter on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)
AZTEC — City of Aztec officials are frustrated that the city's bypass highway project has gone unfunded in recent years.

The highway project, which began 10 years ago in planning meetings at city hall, is designed to provide an eastern path around the central downtown area to lighten the steady stream of truck traffic that passes through the district daily. The traffic causes a number of issues, including damaging the road and older buildings.

"We asked for virtually $6 million from our local delegation and a total of just over $10 million to complete the arterial," said Josh Ray, Aztec's city manager.

The city has saved roughly $1 million toward the project, but Ray feels the avenues the city has pursued have gone nowhere.

Because local legislators have been frustrated in attempts to fund projects on their own, in recent years representatives and senators agreed to pool their capital outlay money together to ensure completion of critical projects.

This legislative session, statewide capital outlay funding for San Juan County delivered more than $5 million for a new building for the San Juan College School of Energy and $2 million toward emergency infrastructure upgrades at the open sewage treatment facility at Kirtland Lagoon.

Last year, a new animal shelter in Farmington received $2.7 million in capital outlay funding.

"W are happy for those worthy projects," said Aztec Mayor Sally Burbridge. "But, honestly, we're frustrated, too. The arterial route is a critical need in so many ways."

The arterial highway would provide a number benefits. Burbridge said the primary one is re-routing the increasing industrial truck traffic from the city's downtown district on Main Avenue to an eastern route.

The city's Main Avenue is technically a four-lane roadway. Also called U.S. Highway 550, it is affected by the dense stream of daily industrial traffic traveling between Albuquerque and San Juan County.

In the last decade, three pedestrians — including a two-year-old boy last year — have been killed in the downtown district. Though the speed limit is 25 mph, only two of the five intersections that control traffic flow have light signals.

And because of the age of many of the district's historic buildings, the vibrations produced by the heavy traffic are continually damaging foundation and wall structures. Eleven of the downtown's 102 structures along Main Avenue are on the national and state historic registry.

Providing the truck traffic a way around the downtown would not only restore the historic corridor to its quieter, pedestrian-and-tourist-friendly past, but the move would also have future economic benefits, Burbridge said.

"The arterial would definitely create greater economic potential to businesses along Main," Burbridge said. "There are also all the hundreds of acres of land that would open up for many economic development possibilities."

Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, is hopeful the project's wheels might finally begin to turn in the next legislative session.

"Aztec's arterial is going to be very high on the list of priorities for funding this year," Neville said. "Every year it has been up there, but a lot of it has been the large dollar amount of the project and emergency work needed, like the Kirtland sewer, that have shifted funding priorities."

Getting Gov. Susana Martinez's attention to the project may help secure funding.

"Besides capital outlay money, the governor's office said that funding from the transportation budget would be another source," Neville said. "We will explore those options as time goes on."

One other avenue might be Martinez's designation of the arterial roadwork as a "project of regional significance," he said.

Though the project carries a hefty price tag, Neville thinks a pragmatic approach would be to aim for an initial $6 million in funding to establish a complete roadbed for the highway. Paving and finishing elements of the roadwork could be completed in piecemeal fashion, requiring smaller amounts of funding.

Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, acknowledged that the city has had to endure a lengthy wait for its turn for funding.

"They've been really patient and have done all of the necessary preparatory work for the project," Bandy said. "I've talked to the Governor about it. It's certainly No. 1 on my list of work to receive funding."

While Bandy backs the city's efforts to complete the project, he acknowledged the process has been slow and sympathized over Ray's frustrations to secure funding.

"(Ray) and the city were disappointed in not receiving funding," Bandy said. "But I think it's the city's turn this time around to get some help."

Since 2005, funding requests from various sources for the project have been rejected 11 times.

In 2010 and 2011, Ray and Burbridge traveled to Washington D.C. to explore federal funding options for the project, only to return empty-handed.

"We've been nice, and we've played some hardball, but nothing has worked," Ray said. "We've done our part. We're beyond shovel-ready."

James Fenton can be reached at jfenton@daily-times.com; 505-564-4621. Follow him on Twitter @fentondt.