County Commission will discuss resolution calling for N.M. Highway 173 to be rebuilt

Officials hope Legislature will set aside funds for redesign work, feasibility study

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The highway was built in 1963 by 3,000 volunteers — approximately three-quarters of the population of Aztec at that time.
  • But it wasn't professionally constructed or designed.
  • Most of the highway has no shoulder, and it is bedeviled by dozens, if not hundreds, of potholes every mile of its length.

FARMINGTON — As part of their effort to attract more outdoor recreation dollars to the area, government officials throughout San Juan County are happy to point to the numerous places where mountain bikers and four-wheeling enthusiasts can enjoy a rugged, turning, twisting, climbing trail that satisfies their sense of adventure.

But they are decidedly less enthusiastic about another route that fits that description — so much so that members of the San Juan County Commission are considering asking state officials to do something about it.

When commissioners meet at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1, at the county building at 100 S. Oliver Drive in Aztec, they will consider a resolution that calls on the New Mexico Department of Transportation to "repair, improve and rebuild" N.M. Highway 173 from U.S. Highway 550 on the west side to Navajo Dam on the east side — an 18-mile stretch of highway they believe has deteriorated to the point that it has become a menace.

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The specific language of that resolution may provide transportation officials with some wiggle room when it comes to addressing the road's shortcomings, but make no mistake — county officials aren't looking for the highway to be patched. They want it torn up, redesigned and rebuilt.

"When I first ran for the County Commission, one of my goals was addressing 173," said Commissioner Steve Lanier, whose district encompasses the roadway.

San Juan County commissioners will consider adopting a resolution this week that calls on the New Mexico Department of Transportation to repair, improve and rebuild N.M. Highway 173 between U.S. Highway 550 and Navajo Dam.

Lanier said the highway — which serves anglers, boating enthusiasts and other tourists trying to enjoy what the San Juan River and Navajo Lake have to offer — has significant implications for the county's effort to build a vibrant outdoor recreation economy.

"In order to be able to draw people to that area, they have to be able to get there safely," he said.

N.M. Highway 173 doesn't really meet that description, Lanier said.

County Manager Mike Stark noted the highway was built in 1963 by 3,000 volunteers — approximately three-quarters of the population of Aztec at that time — but it wasn't professionally constructed or, more important, designed, leaving many sections of the roadway falling woefully short of basic safety standards.

Stark wasn't impugning the efforts of those volunteer workers. Indeed, he noted their efforts were recognized by the National Civic League that year when that organization bestowed its All American City award on Aztec that year largely because of their work.

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N.M. Highway 173 was constructed in the early 1960s by Aztec residents as a convenient route to the newly opened Navajo Lake.

But building a safe highway — especially in terrain as rugged and challenging as that of eastern San Juan County — is no easy feat, and is something best left to professional engineers and construction firms, he said.

In its current configuration, a drive on N.M. Highway 173 is more of an adventure that most people would care for. The narrow road follows the natural terrain to an uncomfortable degree, with sharp turns, rapid climbs and descents, sites where it is washed out during rainstorms, and, worst of all, numerous blind spots.

Most of the highway has no shoulder, and it is bedeviled by dozens, if not hundreds, of potholes every mile of its length. It even has several locations where, judging by the scrapes in the pavement, unsuspecting motorists have bottomed out in their vehicles while rapidly descending one hill and then quickly climbing another.

Lanier is especially concerned about the number of motorists who haul boats on the road — and the precarious position they are left in if their vehicle breaks down. With nowhere safe to pull over for most of that stretch, they can be a sitting duck for a vehicle coming out of one of those aforementioned blind spots, when there is little to no time for drivers to react and avoid an impact.

This section of N.M. Highway 173 is prone to washouts, says County Commissioner Steve Lanier, who describes the south side of the roadway as essentially a canyon.

Lanier also worries about two spots that often get covered with sand during monsoon storms. One of those locations, near the midway point of the highway, is bisected by a large arroyo, and Lanier said the south side of the highway is so washed out it can only be described as a small canyon.

Lanier and Stark have been so concerned about N.M. Highway 173 that when New Mexico Transportation Secretary Michael Sandoval visited San Juan County in the summer of 2021, they persuaded him and his deputy to accompany them on a drive along the length of the road.

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"By the time we got back, and they put their teeth back in their mouth, they agreed we had to start doing something with that highway," Lanier said, deadpan.

Sandoval and his deputy counted 22 blind spots on the road. Lanier said he and Stark had been more concerned about the potholes in the road until that trip. But after Sandoval's visit, it became clear the only way to make the highway safe was to redesign it and rebuilt it, smoothing out the unsafe arcs and sharp turns in the road.

A 3-mile stretch of N.M. Highway 173 near Aztec is being rebuilt and widened, but members of the San Juan County Commission will consider adopting a resolution that calls on the state to replace the rest of theroadway.

But the cost of doing that is prohibitive, Stark acknowledged. The Department of Transportation currently is rebuilding and widening a 3-mile stretch of the road near Aztec at a cost of nearly $5 million.

That leaves an additional 15 miles of highway stretching to Navajo Dam, and Stark estimated the cost of replacing it at $3 million a mile for a total of $45 million. To put that amount in perspective, the state recently awarded the city of Farmington $40 million for the long-awaited Pinon Hills Boulevard extension — a project that was envisioned 25 years ago but largely has been sidelined over that time by a lack of funding.

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Still, Lanier and Stark are optimistic state lawmakers will see the necessity of setting aside enough money during the upcoming session to fund a preliminary redesign for the highway and a feasibility study for constructing it. Stark estimated it would take 18 to 24 months to complete those tasks, and that might give government officials across San Juan County time to identify adequate funding sources for the project and lobby on its behalf.

N.M. Highway 173 is filled with numerous blind spots, washout sites, sharp curves and potholes.

Lanier said there is a citizens group in the area that already has been advocating on behalf of the project, and he said even legislators outside San Juan County might be persuaded to support funding for it.

"We've had not just San Juan County people working on this, but a lot of people down south who come up and use this lake since the water level at Elephant Butte (Reservoir) started falling," he said. "This has piqued the interest of a wide range of people."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.