Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, left, introduces state Sen. John Pinto on Tuesday in Naschitti before Gov. Susana Martinez announced new funding that
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, left, introduces state Sen. John Pinto on Tuesday in Naschitti before Gov. Susana Martinez announced new funding that will allow the state to complete the expansion of U.S. Highway 491 from two-lane to four-lane. (Megan Farmer / The Daily Times)

Naschitti — New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez announced on Tuesday that funding has been secured to expand the remaining 21.8 miles of U.S. Highway 491 from two to four lanes.

The expansion is expected to improve safety and boost economic development by providing better access for the coal, oil and gas industries in the Four Corners.

For decades the highway was listed among one of the most dangerous highways in the United States because of the high number of vehicle fatalities, Martinez said during a windblown press conference on a closed section of the highway.

It also carried a fatality rate six times higher than the rest of the highways located in the state with 60 percent of those fatalities being alcohol related, she said.

Governor Susana Martinez on Tuesday in Naschitti announces new funding that will allow the state to complete the expansion of U.S. Highway 491 from
Governor Susana Martinez on Tuesday in Naschitti announces new funding that will allow the state to complete the expansion of U.S. Highway 491 from two-lane to four-lane. (Megan Farmer / The Daily Times)

"Safety is the top priority here and completing this corridor will also offer improved transportation infrastructure to provide an important boost to the economy in the area," Martinez said.

Construction could cost up to $75 million and will be paid for by bonds, state Transportation Secretary Tom Church said.

Additional elements of the project include developing a median to separate the north and south bound lanes and drainage improvements.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly acknowledged the advocacy of state Sen. John Pinto, D-McKinley and San Juan, in reminding state lawmakers that the highway must be upgraded.

"Sen. Pinto got the ball rolling for the road construction because he knew it needed to be improved for the safety of all who travel upon it," Shelly said.

Pinto sat alongside Martinez and Navajo Division of Transportation Director Paulson Chaco on a flatbed truck that was parked on a completed section of the four-lane highway that was closed to traffic.

"U.S. Highway 491 is a life line for us and it provides us with access to this most important region of New Mexico," Shelly said.

With the sound of tractor-trailers traveling nearby, Pinto said that more than 20 years ago, he along with members of the Navajo Nation Council and community members began requesting funding to widen the highway.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly on Tuesday in Naschitti introduces Governor Susana Martinez who announced new funding that will allow the state to
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly on Tuesday in Naschitti introduces Governor Susana Martinez who announced new funding that will allow the state to complete the expansion of U.S. Highway 491 from two-lane to four-lane. (Megan Farmer / The Daily Times)

Pinto said there were years when funding was approved only to be reallocated for other projects.

"This is a major step in improving the wellbeing of the people of the Navajo Nation," Pinto said.

Freyda Thompson attended the event with six members from the Crystal Chapter Senior Citizens Center and two center employees.

Thompson, the senior local council president for Crystal Chapter, travels the highway to attend meetings in Crownpoint, Farmington and Shiprock.

"I love this four-lane. It's a lot safer, it's a lot easier to travel," Thompson said.

There are times when Esther Sandoval drives members of the senior citizen center to Gallup or Shiprock.

"It's going to be safe for tourists and whoever travels on this road," Sandoval said.

Also on Tuesday, Martinez announced funding to develop the Porter Arroyo Detention Pond Facility in Farmington.

And she appeared with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at a campaign fundraiser at the San Juan Country Club. The private event was closed to the media.

Martinez, Bush and Hanna Skandera, the New Mexico Public Education Department secretary-designate, will attend an event today at Nizhoni Elementary School in Shiprock.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.