AZTEC — City commissioners have approved spending $100,000 from the general fund to pay for unforeseen work on a portion of a bypass that would move U.S. Highway 550 from downtown to a loop around the town's east side.
The East Aztec Arterial Route would divert traffic from the city's historic downtown area to mostly undeveloped open land to the east, starting on U.S. 550 near the Aztec Speedway south of downtown and rejoining the highway at Navajo Dam Road to the northeast. Commissioners approved the spending on Tuesday.
The $11 million-and-counting project was started 10 years ago and has been broken up into phased portions while officials have worked to secure funding to complete the project. Heavy commercial truck traffic on Main Avenue in downtown Aztec shakes the foundations of century-old buildings and leads to recurring road repairs along Main Avenue, which is also U.S. 550.
"In January, (new Public Works Director) Bill Watson reviewed the existing right of way and determined we needed additional right of way to adequately provide for the long term efficiency of the arterial," Aztec City Manager Josh Ray wrote in a text message on Thursday. "The city has always planned to construct the arterial as a two-lane road. However, in order to complete the road swap with (the state transportation department), the road must be a four-lane. It would not be wise for the City to construct the two-lane road without having sufficient right of way for the future four-lane as long as our long-range plan is to swap these two roads."
Ray wants the swap so that the city can maintain Main Avenue and have control over it.
"The city currently has 150-foot right of way secured for the Aztec Arterial. A recent review of the design for phase 2 (connecting phase 1A on the north with phase 1B on the south) has identified a requirement for additional right of way," Finance Director Kathy Lamb wrote in a staff summary report. "The requirement is the result of roadway slopes extending beyond existing right of way. The alternative would be to construct retaining walls, which is cost prohibitive."
The road will also require new environmental studies to be done on the second phase, approximately a mile stretch on the northern end of the five-mile route, since the original studies have long since expired, according to Lamb's report. Also, other "professional services" will be necessary for "project readiness when construction funds are available. Currently, the legislative funds appropriated in spring 2014 will be used for construction of a segment of phase 2," Lamb's report adds.
In addition — the exchange moving U.S. 550 from Main Avenue in downtown Aztec to the eastern loop — would require a four-lane design, which further increases the need for expanded right-of-way requirements, the report said.
The road has been a challenge for Ray, but after securing $3.8 million in capital outlay funds from this year's legislative session, he remains adamant the road will be built. Last month, the city applied for $10 million in grant money through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, Discretionary Grant Program. The federal program funds projects "that have a significant impact on the Nation, a region or a metropolitan area," according to the Department of Transportation's website.
Grant applications this year came to $9.5 billion, 15 times the $600 million set aside for the program. Award notifications are expected in the fall.
"Completion of the Arterial is the number one priority project for the City of Aztec," Ray wrote.