ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If you don’t have to drive through Bernalillo – specifically through the U.S. 550/N.M. 528 intersection – this weekend, don’t.
Don’t get me wrong – the community is a nearly thousand-year-old gem along the Rio Grande, with everything from historic pueblo ruins and a campground to great places to shop, drink and eat (the original Range Cafe is there, for heaven’s sake). But a $24 million, two-year construction project on U.S. 550 – the main east-west route through town – combined with not one but three youth sports tournaments in the area promises another weekend of gridlock.
If you have to get to northwest Rio Rancho, the state highway department advises taking any river crossing but 550 through Bernalillo.
And with any luck, having those folks off 550 will make traffic bearable for those who have no alternative to driving 550 or through the 550/528 intersection.
Last Saturday, Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres sat in the 550 construction backup for more than an hour before calling out the New Mexico Department of Transportation and its contractor on social media, posting “the current delays on U.S. 550 are unacceptable, and significantly worse than anticipated. … (NMDOT and contractor FNF) have failed our community. We will continue to press our concerns with DOT District 3, as well as with DOT Secretary Mike Sandoval and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.”
Sandoval didn’t need to read about the construction-caused traffic jam on Facebook – he was in it daily Nov. 6-10. So was his 13-year-old son, stuck on a bus for an hour with his soccer team Nov. 7. After a project meeting Wednesday, Sandoval sent everyone who contacted him a reply, which noted he had driven through the work zone 20 to 25 times and “there was a serious issue that caused unreasonable delays on Thursday evening due to a software failure with one of the signals. … I know many people were not only delayed but left the area feeling very frustrated and upset and rightfully so. Having driven through the area again (Monday and Tuesday), things seem to be working better as we completed an additional adjustment to traffic signals. We are monitoring constantly.”
This stretch of U.S. 550 serves commuters in the Metro area from Bernalillo, Rio Rancho, Santa Ana Pueblo, Placitas, Corrales and Albuquerque. It’s how you get to Cuba and Farmington.
And it is at capacity and headed for failure.
Around 2,000 vehicles drive it every hour during afternoon rush hour, according to the project website, keepmoving550.com; 50,000 drive it each a day. That’s projected to hit 70,000 by 2035. The project site warns “the projected traffic from the Mid Region Council of Governments will cause all of the signalized intersections to fail if improvements are not made.”
So NMDOT is widening 550 to make it a six-lane highway with three lanes in each direction, rebuilding the intersection with 528 into the state’s very first continuous-flow intersection (see a video on how it works at the project website), updating and installing storm drain systems, adding bike lanes and sidewalks, and coordinating a new traffic signal system with the existing ones.
This phase of 550 construction – technically Phase 2 as NMDOT works west – is from N.M. 313 to Santa Ana Road and is scheduled through June 2020. Work will continue from Santa Ana Road to 528 from June 2020 to June 2021. Right now all traffic – east- and westbound – is on the north side of 550 while crews build the south side of the highway.
NMDOT warns the second weekend of the Gaylord Sheppard Soccer Tournament continues Saturday and Sunday at the New Mexico Soccer Tournament Complex just north of the 550/528 intersection. The Notah Begay Track and Field Competition will have 600-700 youths plus their families headed to the vicinity of the Tamaya golf course, also north of the 550/528 intersection, Saturday. And the NMAA high school state volleyball tournament continues Saturday at the Santa Ana Star Center.
Secretary Sandoval, who likened 550 traffic flow to trying to move “water from a fire hose through a straw” in his response to motorists, added “traffic will again be heavy because of these events which are sending several thousand additional cars through the area. We have reached out to each event and recommended alternate routes.”
The alternate routes
Kimberly Gallegos, who handles information for NMDOT’s District 3 Office, says “we are informing people that are going to Santa Ana Star to use other river crossings such as Alameda, Paseo or Montaño to head toward Rio Rancho.
Other alternate routes off Interstate-25 north are to go through Algodones to get to U.S. 550.”
In other words, take anything but the U.S. 550 exit off I-25.
Marisa Maez, NMDOT’s communications director, adds that folks should allow plenty of time to get to their event and NMDOT will post drive times on its electronic message boards around the construction area through the duration of the project.
The I-25 southbound signs will show the time it will take to get to Southern and N.M. 528 from U.S. 550, Alameda and Paseo.
The I-25 northbound sign at San Mateo will show the time it will take to get to the 550/528 intersection via Paseo, Alameda and 550.
And the I-25 northbound sign at Paseo will show the time it will take to get to the 550/528 intersection via Alameda and 550.
Because Saturday is so event-heavy, Sandoval says in his note “we are delaying a traffic signal installation that was scheduled for Thursday at 9 p.m. to Saturday (tonight) at 12 midnight.”
And while NMDOT will be monitoring, Gallegos says the Monday rush hours could be rough, too.
Editorial page editor D’Val Westphal tackles commuter issues for the Metro area. Reach her at 823-3858; firstname.lastname@example.org; or 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, N.M. 87109.