Money for '491 expansion hits roadblock

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 21, 2012

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(Times photo - Paul Natonabah)

Traffic flows from a four-lane highway into two lanes north of Twin Lakes at milepost 15 on U.S. Highway 491.






N avajo transportation officials are expressing frustration at the delays in getting work completed on U.S. Highway 491.

Paulson Chaco, director of the Navajo Department of Transportation, said he thought that the state had filed applications for more federal grants to complete the widening of '491 but learned too late that they had not.

This leaves up in the air the question of when the widening of the highway, viewed as one of the most dangerous in the region as well as one of the most dangerous in the entire United States, will ever be completed.

State Senator John Pinto, D-McKinley/San Juan, has been working to get money for the project for more than 20 years and he continues to say he won't leave the senate until that project is completed.

As it stands, it looks like he is going to have to win at least one more election and maybe even two because while construction is underway on segments five and six, the funding for segments one through four is up in the air because there are no funds.

Morris Williams, the area project director for the New Mexico Department of Transportation, said work is being done from the 46- to the 59.5-mile markers. The 59.5-mile marker is just north of Naschitti and mile marker 46 is just north of Sheep Springs.

To complete the project, construction needs to be done from the 46 marker to the 15.9 marker near Twin Lakes.

The project over the years has had a number of ups and downs, with the downs leading the ups.

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson agreed to come up with $120 million in GRIP I funding to expand the two-lane segments into four lanes.

The project was held up for a year or so because of disputes over rights of ways and the Navajo Nation's contribution to the project. But these issues were eventually cleared up and three years ago construction on the expansion began at the northern end.

But the delays and the shifting of funds by the state to other projects meant that the money that was originally set aside was nowhere near the amount needed to finish the project.

The Navajo Nation applied for a Tiger 1 grant from the federal government to pay for the construction of segments five and six and received $31 million, which turned out to be even more than was needed.

Williams said the cost is now expected to be about $24 million but that doesn't mean the savings will be used for the next segment. Instead, Williams said it reverts back to the federal government.


As it stands now, when construction gets to the 46-mile marker this November, it will stop until more funds become available.

But Williams said this doesn't mean that work on the project has stopped completely.

The state and the Navajo Nation are working on a right-of-way exchange for these segments.

"We need a little more right of way on the west side and we will give them a little more on the east side," he said.

He said that this is expected to be completed shortly so that when money becomes available for more construction, it can start without delay.

The question, however, is just how much money is needed to finish the project.

Williams gave a ballpark figure of $125 million but pointed out that the actual costs go up or down every day because of the changing costs of oil, cement, asphalt and everything else that is part of road construction.

So it will be at least a few years before a four-lane highway between Gallup and Shiprock is completed.

"If we had the money in hand today, we could probably get it completed in two or three years," Williams said.

The Navajo Nation had hoped that the state would get some funding for the project from Tiger II but Chaco, said that's not going to happen since the deadline for applying for those funds was March 29 and neither the state nor the tribe submitted an application.

Chaco said tribal officials thought that the state was going to submit an application but found out recently that the proposal to fund 491 from Tiger II had been bumped because of a proposal from Albuquerque to apply for funds for an overpass in the northern part of the city.

But that failed because the plan was for the city of Albuquerque to OK a $50 million bond and the Tiger II grant would be used to supplement it. But the city council rejected that twice so neither the city nor the tribe applied for money.

"If we had known that the state was not going to submit an application for 491 funding, we would have done so," said Chaco, adding that he was upset at the state for not informing tribal officials of their plans.

He said state officials told him that the state doesn't have the funds to take on a project as big as 491 at this time.

"For that reason," Chaco said, "it's going to be some time before we see any more funding for the project."

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