San Juan County Commission throws support behind effort to get N.M. Highway 173 rebuilt

State lawmakers will be asked to approve funding for new design

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Commissioners passed the measure unanimously on Nov. 1 after a presentation from County Manager Mike Stark.
  • Figures supplied to The Daily Times by the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office show the highway has been the site of at least two dozen crashes over the last 10 years.
  • Navajo Dam resident Jim Maes unofficially has championed efforts to get the road rebuilt for the past several years.

FARMINGTON — A long-planned effort to get N.M. Highway 173 between Aztec and Navajo Dam redesigned and rebuilt appears to have generated some momentum after members of the San Juan County Commission voted this week in favor of a resolution supporting those goals.

Commissioners passed the measure unanimously on Nov. 1 after a presentation from County Manager Mike Stark. Stark said the road was built in 1963 in only two years by 3,000 volunteers, mostly from the city of Aztec, using donated equipment and supplies.

But over the last 60 years, he pointed out, the highway has deteriorated from heavy truck traffic while suffering from a lack of shoulders and inadequate sight lines.

“That’s led to safety concerns that’s been seen over time,” he said during the Nov. 1 meeting.

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Stark said the idea of redesigning and rebuilding the road has been discussed by commissioners for at least a year. He described how he and other local officials escorted then-New Mexico Transportation Secretary Mike Sandoval and then-Deputy Secretary Justin Reese on a drive of the 18-mile highway in the summer of 2021 to illustrate how hazardous the road was.

“They noted they will encounter a lot of folks throughout the state who will exaggerate about the condition of a road because they’re looking for the state to come in and provide funding to fix it,” Stark said. “After we finished our tour, (Sandoval) said, ‘You didn’t exaggerate about the condition of this road. Thank you for the field trip.’”

The San Juan County Commission has adopted a measure calling on the state to appropriate money for a redesign of N.M. Highway 173 between Aztec and Navajo Dam.

Commissioner John Beckstead asked what kind of traction that exchange generated in terms of building support for getting a new road built. Stark responded by saying that two members of San Juan County’s legislative delegation, state Rep. Rod Montoya and state Sen. Steve Neville, already have submitted requests to their fellow lawmakers during the upcoming session for funding that would cover the cost of a new design for the highway.

Stark described that as a logical first step in getting the road rebuilt. While the redesign is being completed, he said, local officials could work on securing the funding required to pay for the construction.

That cost is expected to be considerable, even though three miles of the highway on the west end is being rebuilt under a current Department of Transportation project.

“No one has a crystal ball on construction costs these days, but let’s just use a rough number, which I think is fairly accurate, of $3 million (per mile),” Stark said.

That would leave a price tag of $45 million for the project’s remaining 15 miles, he said.

Beckstead jokingly proposed that a citizens committee, headed by Commissioner Steve Lanier, whose District III includes the highway, be appointed to rebuild the road, much the same way those Aztec volunteers did 60 years ago.

“I have another job,” Lanier responded drily.

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Those who support the reconstruction of N.M. Highway 173 between Aztec and Navajo Dam point to this arroyo at the highway's edge as one particular area of concern.

Commissioner Terri Fortner expressed her concerns about the state of the road and its potential for getting even worse, especially in locations where arroyos have eroded the surrounding area.

“There are no shoulders, and you can’t pull over,” she said. “I’m surprised there hasn’t been sinkhole under one of the roads. … It’s definitely a hazard and a real concern.”

Figures supplied to The Daily Times by the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office show the highway has been the site of at least two dozen crashes over the last 10 years — seven of which resulted in multiple injuries. More than a dozen of those incidents have taken place in just the last three years. Those figures do not include incidents handled by the Aztec Police Department or the New Mexico State Police.

Navajo Dam resident Jim Maes, who has unofficially championed efforts to get the road rebuilt for the past several years, spoke to the commission before the vote, noting that it wasn’t until recently that the movement began to pick up steam.

“It hasn’t been until the last six to eight months that we finally decided we’re going to try and put something together and make it happen,” he said.

The safety of the motorists who use the road is his No. 1 concern, Maes said. But he said the road’s poor condition is also an economic development issue, pointing out that thousands of drivers each year use the highway to visit Navajo Lake or the San Juan River, or access the other outdoor recreation opportunities the area offers.

Maes, who served as a deputy secretary of economic development and tourism under Gov. Garrey Carruthers in the late 1980s, said fixing the road would provide a significant economic boost to the county’s economy, which has been increasingly focused on outdoor recreation in recent years.

“There are 300 (sandstone) arches in San Juan County,” Maes said. “A lot of those arches are off (Highway) 173.”

Maes said he recently had been made aware that there are numerous petroglyphs in the canyons surrounding the highway, while hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and bird-watching opportunities abound.

“There’s so many activities out there, and I believe by fixing this road, it’ll open up the whole Four Corners area,” he said.

San Juan County Manager Mike Stark estimates it would take $45 million to rebuild 15 miles of N.M. Highway 173.

To build public support for the effort, Maes has had 500 bumper stickers printed that state, “Fix the dam road,” a reference to the highway’s Navajo Lake Dam terminus on the east side. He distributed the stickers during the Nov. 1 meeting, drawing laughter from the commissioners.

During a Nov. 2 interview with The Daily Times, Maes said the Aztec City Commission approved a resolution in late October mirroring the one adopted by the San Juan County Commission. He said efforts are underway to get the leaders of various other communities in the area — Farmington, Bloomfield and even Durango, Colorado — to pass resolutions of their own, all part of an effort to build a regional consensus in support of a new highway.

He plans on delivering a presentation to the Farmington Rotary Club on Jan. 17 to further highlight the need for a new road as he continues his efforts to turn up the heat on the subject.

“Somebody’s going to have to pay attention,” he said.

Maes recalled a recent conversation he had with a state transportation official who told him that even if state officials and lawmakers are receptive to the idea of rebuilding the highway, it likely would be 2025 before the project could get started. The only way to shorten that timeline, Maes said he was told, is if local officials go about securing the money for the project themselves.

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That has led Maes to begin to piece together a plan to do just that. He said he hopes to mount an effort to get state lawmakers to appropriate $15 million for the project during the upcoming session, then seek another $15 million from the Federal Highway Administration. He hopes the final $15 million could be obtained from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress earlier this year, with that money being administered through the New Mexico Finance Authority.

Another potential source of funding, he said, could be the oil and gas companies who operate in San Juan County.

“They use that road, and they use it pretty extensively,” he said.

Maes hopes to convince the operators of 15 companies to chip in $1 million apiece for the project.

“That completes our $15 million, and let’s get it done before 2025,” he said.

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