On November 28, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly met with New Mexico Department of Transportation (DOT) Cabinet Secretary Alvin Dominguez to discuss the construction of U.S. Hwy 491, where he expressed the importance of its completion for the Navajo community.
“The partnership we have with the state of New Mexico in completing the project of U.S. 491 is essential. We need to keep at these partnerships for the benefit of the people,” Shelly said during the meeting.
The meeting, to discuss the current state of the road improvements, was planned by the New Mexico DOT and the Navajo Nation Division of Transportation.
Funding for the four-mile portion of the highway included a $13 million allocation from the state of New Mexico. Much of that funding came through a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant.
Also referred to as the TIGER Discretionary Grant program, the TIGER grant “provides a unique opportunity for the U.S. Department of Transportation to invest in road, rail, transit and port projects that promise to achieve critical national objectives,” according to the U.S. DOT website.
New Mexico is an applicant for TIGER grants, and receives support through letters of support and documentation from the Navajo Nation. In the 2012 grant round, New Mexico received $5 million to improve an 11.9 mile stretch of Torreon Road, which serves four chapters of the Navajo Nation as well as Sandoval County according to the grant announcements. The project will turn a deteriorating rural road into a paved highway with shoulders that will allow for 55-65 milers-per-hour speeds.
“The project demonstrates widespread support and collaboration between the New Mexico Department of Transportation, Navajo DOT, and the Mid Region Council of Governments,” the grant announcement said.
The benefits at Torreon Road, are similar to those with the U.S. Hwy 491 project, in that it will improve access to employment and commerce, while bringing the roads up to a state-of-good-repair reducing future maintenance costs and increasing safety for pedestrians and drivers.
“The construction of [U.S. Hwy 491] employs Navajo workers. It creates jobs but most of all it is for the safety of the travelers. Extending to a four lane highway rather than two is much safer,” Shelly said.
One of the communities along U.S. Hwy 491, a major roadway from Interstate 40 to the Four Corners region, is Naschitti on the Navajo reservation – with a population of 1,500 according to U.S. Census Data.
Funding for the project came following Joint Memorial Resolutions that “described U.S. 686 (presently U.S. 491) as ‘the site of many accidents,’ noting that ‘although the rate of accidents has decreased due to road improvements, it is still a dangerous stretch of highway.’ A House Joint Memorial 60 and Senate Joint Memorial 49 were passed by the 2003 Legislature of the state of New Mexico to address road improvements,” according to an e-mail from Erny Zah, director of communications for Navajo Nation.
The U.S. Hwy 491 project began in December of 2009 and its completion is scheduled for May 2014.