It's been two traffic-jammed years; why isn't U.S. 550 done? - Albuquerque Journal

It’s been two traffic-jammed years; why isn’t U.S. 550 done?

IT STARTED IN OCTOBER 2019: John Selph has “ongoing questions about the 550 project through Bernalillo. It has taken entirely too long for completion.”

John points out “this is a major arterial road that impacts thousands on a daily basis and also multiple businesses along 550. Why wasn’t the contract written to expedite completion by providing an incentive for early completion? On most projects impacting such a large number of businesses of people and businesses, construction crews will work on weekends and during night-time hours. This has not happened and the result is serious frustration, anger and loss of significant income for business. I realize all construction can be a nightmare for most folks, but this is absurd and has gone on way too long. What happened to this project to allow such a fiasco?”

First, anyone who has been stuck in the construction zone in the past two years — including NMDOT Secretary Michael Sandoval, who said in a previous column he drives the project regularly — understands John’s frustration.

Second, the project was always going to run through 2021, there has been work at night and on weekends, and a global pandemic affected staffing.

Third, it will be essentially over by Thanksgiving, a month early.

The $24 million highway rebuild kicked off in October 2019. It is being done because the Mid-Region Council of Governments predicted the increasing load of traffic from Bernalillo, Rio Rancho, Santa Ana Pueblo, Placitas, Corrales and Albuquerque will cause “all of the signalized intersections to fail if improvements are not made.”

When the project started, 50,000 vehicles drove on the stretch of U.S. 550 between N.M. 313 and N.M. 528 each day — 2,000 every hour during afternoon rush hour. That’s projected to hit 70,000 by 2035.


Backups have been an issue on U.S. 550 for more than a decade — which is why NMDOT rebuilt the highway and interchange at N.M. 528. Here, traffic tries to head east on U.S. 550 at N.M. 528 on a Friday afternoon in 2019. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

So over the past two years NMDOT has widened 550 to three lanes in each direction, rebuilt the intersection with 528 into the state’s very first continuous-flow intersection (see a video on how it works at the project website, www.keepmoving550.com), updated and installed storm drain systems, added bike lanes and sidewalks, and coordinated a new traffic signal system with the existing ones.

IT’S ALMOST DONE: Kimberly Gallegos of NMDOT’s District 3 Office says the project “is rapidly approaching substantial completion by Thanksgiving 2021.” She said Friday there will be two lanes open in each direction from now on and that paving is essentially done. The final layer could go down on night shifts if temperatures permit — it needs to be around 60 degrees and rising — or crews could come back in the spring and do it at night then.

“What remains on the project is permanent striping and the continuous flow interchange at the intersection of N.M. 528 and U.S. 550,” she says. “The anticipated start date for the CFI is on Nov. 10.”

AND ABOUT THOSE BACKUPS: There was an outpouring of frustration on a recent Friday after crews closed down lanes to repave because of the high temperatures.

Gallegos says there was an issue at the materials plant, so the closure lasted hours longer than it was supposed to.

Other issues during the two years of construction, Gallegos says, were the many utility relocations, the fact NMDOT had to deal with the myriad challenges that came up as crews installed a storm drain down the middle of the median, and the same staffing shortages many industries are facing as a result of COVID-19.

Going forward, she says two lanes of U.S. 550 will be open in both directions at all times. And she emphasizes “we appreciate the public’s patience over the course of construction in this area. With Bernalillo and Rio Rancho’s continuous growth, the NMDOT is completing this project to address more capacity and faster travel time for the traveling public of these growing communities.”

 

Editorial page editor D’Val Westphal tackles commuter issues for the metro area on Mondays. Reach her at 823-3858; dwestphal@abqjournal.com; or 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM, 87109.

 


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