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A tall order: Bridge for Los Alamos road could be nation’s highest

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

If past plans are any indication, Los Alamos National Laboratory’s idea for a new road across the Rio Grande at or near White Rock Canyon that would provide a new link to Santa Fe and Interstate 25 could include one of the highest bridges in the United States, maybe even the highest.

Laboratory officials threw out the road idea and showed a crude map with possible routes at a meeting with 700 contractors in Pojoaque last month, as officials unveiled plans for a major building boom at LANL.

The lab isn’t offering a guess about the size of a new bridge at White Rock Canyon, which would significantly reduce the time it takes to go between Los Alamos’ hilltop location and Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Kelly Beierschmitt

In an emailed response to questions from Journal North about how long and high bridge might be, Kelly Beierschmitt, LANL’s deputy director of operations, said, “If the idea of building a bridge were to go forward, which we would support and believe it would benefit the region, the details regarding a possible bridge would probably be decided by state and federal transportation officials.”

This isn’t the first time a bridge like this has been considered.

In 1990, an environmental impact statement on the “Santa Fe-Los Alamos Corridor” was prepared by what was then called the New Mexico Highway and Transportation Department and the federal Highway Administration.

It showed various spots for crossing the Rio Grande.

One option in the report is for a bridge 1,020 feet above the Rio Grande and is called the Montoso Peak Alternative. This would be highest bridge in the United States. The Royal Gorge Bridge over the Arkansas River in Colorado is the tallest now, at 955 feet.

A Montoso Peak bridge would dwarf the spectacular Rio Grande Gorge Bridge north of Taos, which is generally said to be about 650 feet above the river. The Montoso bridge would be 2,790 feet long. The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is about 1,300 feet long.

Another option in the 1990 document, the Chino Mesa Alternative, calls for two bridges, one for northbound traffic and one for southbound, each about 810 feet above the Rio Grande and 3,113 feet long.

Alternates over stretches known as Mortandad and Sandia canyons would be lower, at 460 or 290 feet high.

Beierschmitt said, “We do believe any route off the mesa heading south would facilitate the creation of an Innovation Triangle between Los Alamos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The road issue is much bigger than just our workforce. The Lab can play a bigger role in supporting the local business community and contributing to economic development and technology transfer with better connections throughout the region.”

St. Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, said she has been hearing concerns about the road/bridge from constituents on issues such as disturbing the scenic canyon’s open space.

“I think part of the problem is there is a lack of information about what the Lab is actually suggesting,” she said.

“There needs to be some kind of public participation in all of this stuff,” Chandler added.

She said there are some people in Los Alamos who do not take the suggestion for a canyon bridge, “a triple-digit million-dollar kind of project,” seriously. “But I guess you can’t fault someone for thinking big,” Chandler said.

Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group, a Lab critic, called the bridge idea “an extremely ambitious project for a very limited objective and, really, the chutzpa of it just boggles the mind.”

He added in an email: “Fostering more automobile travel in an age of climate collapse is indicative of just how Neanderthal LANL’s thinking really is once the public relations veneer is scrubbed off.

“In 1944, the answer was buses. LANL doesn’t need more employees, but if it did, carpools and buses are the answer, not ‘happy motoring’ on highways where the deer and antelope once played.

“Los Alamos has more millionaires per capita than almost any town in America. This would primarily be a highway for the privileged few. It would be hard to think of a more backward and poorly justified transport investment than this.”

Beierschmitt wrote that the lab is “interested in a new route because, first and foremost, we feel that a new route would give the business community better access to cutting-edge Lab technology and, importantly, provide good paying jobs to many more New Mexicans by significantly cutting down on commuting time from Albuquerque.

“More and more of our new employees will be living ‘off the hill’ in places like Española, Santa Fe and ABQ. Los Alamos County is very appropriately being aggressive in expanding housing opportunities, but it will not be enough to meet the growing need.

“We also have safety concerns in that we are hiring so many people that it would be very slow getting people off the mesa in case of a wildfire. Finally, the traffic congestion is getting to be a significant problem in Los Alamos and White Rock, and that detracts from the quality of the work experience, which makes it harder to recruit the next-generation workforce.”

LANL Director Thomas Mason recently told Journal North that the lab currently has 1,400 openings and has been hiring about 1,000 people annually over the past several years, with about 500 each year placed in new job slots as opposed to replacing retirees or others who have left the lab.

Mason said LANL provides about 12,000 jobs now and should add 1,200 more by 2026, by which time the Lab is supposed to be producing 30 plutonium cores for nuclear bombs, known as “pits,” each year under a massive project that is part of modernization of the nation’s weapons arsenal.

The idea of a better link for Los Alamos with Santa Fe and Albuquerque has the support of business leaders backing the tech-triangle idea.

This map from a 1990 state/federal transportation planning document shows possible routes for a bridge over the Rio Grande in the White Rock Canyon area.

Jeffrey Perea Branch of Columbus Capital Corp. of Santa Barbara, California, a developer originally from Santa Fe who splits time between California and New Mexico, said he believes the bridge-road “is important to the long-term success of northern New Mexico.”

Branch said the area is “in a real cool place” now because of innovators like the movie industry; Meow Wolf, which is taking its immersive arts installations nationwide; Descartes Labs, which uses data analysis technology to turn satellite-based feeds into information it can sell to clients about trends in areas, such as crop yields; and Pebble Labs, which researches food and crop safety, public health and the reduction of the occurrence of vector-born diseases.

“But we’ve got to pay attention or we’re going to lose it,” he said. It’s important for leaders to start planning for the next 25 to 30 years, he said.

Branch said Los Alamos is growing quickly and “they need to be connected in a much quicker way.”

John F. Rizzo, a Silicon Valley veteran with connections to New Mexico who said he’s moving to Santa Fe, said technology and innovation companies can boost communities in part because they are blind to things like race, gender, creed, nationality and sexual orientation. He said Los Alamos is an “incredibly technology-rich environment,” but it’s blocked off because of its location.

“The greater access to jobs there, the more connected it is, the more opportunity exists for job growth and opportunities across the state,” Rizzo said.

LANL’s Beierschmitt, part of the leadership team since Triad National Security LLC took over the lab management contract last year, wrote that Lab officials haven’t approached state officials about a bridge road yet “because this is a long-range idea put forth to prompt what we feel is a needed conversation amongst the business community and local governments on the future well-being of the region.

“As we have heard from many parts of the northern New Mexico community, both before and after we took over LANL, the Laboratory needs to do more to help bring jobs, assist in improving education and create long-term sustainability opportunities. The road idea is a small piece of our overall plan.”

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