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US 550 work causes major traffic snarls

This view from eastbound US 550 shows where construction will soon begin at the intersection between US 550 and NM 528. The Department of Transportation will soon begin setting up for the expansion, which is planned in two phases and expected to continue until 2021.
Photo by Stephen Montoya/Observer

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — The first of its kind in New Mexico, a “continuous flow intersection” being built north of Rio Rancho — but involving Rio Ranchoans who travel on US 550 — has led to a continuous flow of many headaches.

Here’s the plan, according to the New Mexico Department of Transportation, when it comes to expanding US 550 from its intersection with NM 313 (Camino del Pueblo) to NM 528:

Phase 2 construction began Oct. 28 on the first of two sections, from NM 313 to Santa Ana Road, which the DOT expects to be completed this coming June. Work on Section 2, from Santa Ana Road to NM 528, is planned to run from June 2020 to June 2021.

The current phase moves traffic to the north side of the roadway between NM 313 and the Rio Grande, so the south side of the road can be built. Two lanes will be kept open in each direction, with numerous slowdowns and stops caused when drivers need to make left turns.

Sandoval County Commissioner Katherine Bruch said many of her constituents are concerned with traveling delays due to the construction.

“Many have had to cancel appointments in Rio Rancho,” she said. “I have also heard from some businesses that they are losing customers. I am also concerned with the ability of emergency vehicles to respond in a timely manner.”

Bruch said she has spoken with the DOT Region 3 engineer and knows the department is working with the contractor to alleviate some of the delays.

“A construction project of this size is going to have some negative impact on traveling through the corridor,” she said. “However, we cannot tolerate unreasonable traffic delays, nor sustained delays that have a negative impact upon businesses and people’s health and safety.

“Since this is a state project, the county and town have no control over the process. But (Town of Bernalillo Mayor Jack) Torres and I will continue to work with NMDOT and keep them apprised of unacceptable traffic conditions due to the construction.”

Bruch said she travels through the 550 corridor and experienced the delays.

According to the state transportation department’s project website, keepmoving550.com: “The through volume of traffic of 2,000 vehicles per hour in the afternoon rush hour is almost at capacity for a two-lane roadway. The projected traffic from the Mid Region Council of Governments will cause all of the signalized intersections to fail if improvements are not made.

“In addition, the existing roadway has no bicycle facilities although the roadway has a significant number of bicycle users and limited sidewalks for pedestrians.

“Improving the capacity and reducing the congestion on US 550 between I-25 and NM 528 will enhance economic development potential in the town of Bernalillo, Santa Ana Pueblo, Rio Rancho and the communities in northwest New Mexico.”

Torres is less than pleased with the situation.

On Nov. 9, he posted on his Facebook page, “The current delays on US 550 are unacceptable, and significantly worse than anticipated. Friday afternoon DOT staff met with FNF (project contractor) to put in place a plan to improve traffic flow. According to DOT District 3 Engineer Ken Murphy, they agree the current situation is unacceptable, and have committed resources to improve traffic flow.…

“We understand that there will be some delays, but we also expect DOT and FNF to do all possible to minimize those impacts. To date, they have not performed adequately.

“On our end, we will continue to advocate for our community. We ask that all motorists do their best to be kind and patient. We cannot avoid some traffic delays but will push for changes to minimize those delays.”

A similar post on the Town of Bernalillo Facebook page garnered 153 comments, mostly from unhappy people, who said things like:

“I should not have to leave my house 1.5 hours early to go 12 miles to get to work. Construction should be done at night when there are less people on the roads.”

“I went 2 miles and it took me 45 minutes. The worst part of it all was there were four department of transportation workers standing around smoking cigarettes and no one was working while traffic was backed up for several miles.”

From Nov. 6-8, when the state soccer tournament was being played at the New Mexico Soccer Tournament Complex north of the 528-550 interchange, traffic got even worse, either from late arrivals who didn’t know about the project or took it lightly, or from those heading home after seeing their team play.

Last weekend and this weekend, the 34th annual Gaylord Sheppard Memorial Soccer Tournament is being staged at the Bernalillo soccer complex, complicating the traffic woes, in light of an estimated 4,000 people flowing into the complex.

“The purpose of this construction is to relieve an already-congested roadway,” Department of Transportation Secretary Mike Sandoval said. “We empathize with drivers traveling on US 550 and ask for your patience and understanding.

“We are monitoring signals and traffic constantly, and will make ongoing adjustments when necessary. We will do everything we can to mitigate headaches and we appreciate everyone’s understanding.”

The DOT recommended that drivers wishing to avoid congestion on US 550 over the Rio Grande use alternate river crossings— via Montaño, Paseo del Norte and Alameda — which won’t help congestion on NM 528 through Rio Rancho.

For updates and more on the project, visit keepmoving550.com.

(Observer Assistant Editor Stephen Montoya contributed to this story.)

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