La Plata residents concerned about highway

The narrow La Plata Highway experiences heavy traffic, which residents say contributes to its deteriorating condition

Hannah Grover,
Traffic moves south Wednesday on U.S. Highway 170, better known as the La Plata Highway. Local residents describe the highway as riddled with potholes and too narrow.
  • Many trucks transport coal from Hesperus, Colo., to Gallup using the highway.
  • Residents report seeing overturned coal trucks and vehicles that have driven through fences.
  • Several road projects in San Juan County are competing for funding from the state.








LA PLATA — Every road in and out of this community near the Colorado border is narrow, cluttered with potholes and has a relatively high speed limit.

While the roads are on a list of priority projects for the state, they are not high up on the list, and there is not enough funding to fix them, according to state Transportation Commissioner Butch Matthews.

One highway in particular has residents concerned.

N.M. Highway 170, widely known as the La Plata Highway, deals with heavy truck traffic as commuters travel between Farmington and Durango, Colo., and trucks transport coal from the King Coal Mine in Hesperus, Colo., to Gallup.

"You can't tell if someone is a distracted driver or if they are, you know, just trying to dodge some potholes," said Steve Dunn, a La Plata resident.

Dunn said the state highway department regularly sends crews to patch the potholes, but the patching only lasts a matter of days.

"I guess it's a losing battle for them," he said.

Over the years, residents report having seen coal trucks that have overturned and cars that have driven through fences. Some even have stories about nearly getting in crashes themselves.

Charlie Blassingame said he has had three cars go through his fence near the junction of N.M. highways 170 and 574. He also remembers seeing an overturned coal truck on the side of the road.

La Plata residents Steve Dunn, left, and Charlie Blassingame talk about the deteriorating condition of the La Plata Highway on Wednesday along the shoulder of the roadway.

"I just remember seeing all the coal all over the road," he said.

As drivers reach New Mexico from Colorado on the highway, the speed limit decreases from 65 mph to 55 mph, but some residents say too many drivers do not slow down. The highway also curves near the state line, making it dangerous for some residents trying to enter the road from their driveway.

Mark Utrub said he has had several close calls while leaving his driveway.

"They come around this corner sometimes at 90 miles per hour, it seems like," he said.

Utrub said the highway is in the worst condition he has seen it since 1989.

The residents believe resurfacing and widening the La Plata Highway would fix many of the problems.

"I would love to have that happen out there," Matthews said. "But we have a lot of highways."

La Plata resident Steve Dunn drives down the La Plata Highway on Wednesday.

Just in San Juan County, the list of priority projects includes the Piñon Hills Boulevard extension, the East Aztec Arterial Route, the U.S. Highway 64 widening project, work on N.M. Highway 371 to Crownpoint and working on U.S. Highway 491.

Matthews said there is not enough money to go around, although he said the La Plata Highway is an important route for the families who live in the area, as well as mine workers and the city of Gallup.

"We barter for everything we get," he said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.