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DOT considers proposals to ease traffic on U.S. 550

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — During peak travel hours each morning and evening, a two-mile piece of U.S. 550 that stretches east to west through Bernalillo is operating at capacity, according to the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

This makes for a lengthy, frustrating journey through town for the drivers of the 40,000 to 50,000 vehicles that travel on the roadway every weekday. And that number is expected to grow to 85,000 by 2035.

“You just pray that there’s not a stalled vehicle or an accident,” Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres said, adding that those incidents make for even worse driving through town.

“The congestion on this corridor has existed for some time,” DOT spokeswoman Bernadette Bell said. That’s why the department is considering three alternatives intended to reduce travel times and ease congestion. They all address the chunk of highway 550 from N.M. 528 to N.M. 313, where the highway increases from two to three lanes in each direction.

All three options would add a third lane in each direction, as well as bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides.

The first option, six lanes with raised medians, simply widens the highway and adds raised medians. Bell said that this option would reduce peak hour travel times by 30 percent in the morning and 10 percent in the evening.

The second, a reversible lane, includes a center lane that would act as a continuous turn lane during non-peak hours. But, during peak hours, it would act as a fourth traffic lane. Every morning during rush hour, it would carry eastbound traffic and, in the afternoon, it would carry westbound traffic. It would reduce peak hour travel times by 45 percent in the morning and 73 percent in the afternoon, according to the DOT.

The third alternative, the “super street,” would eliminate several movements at each intersection within the project area, providing longer green signal times at each intersection. Drivers would be unable to cross U.S. 550 and would instead turn right onto the highway and make a U-turn at a median opening. The super street option would reduce peak hour travel times by 44 percent in the morning and 66 percent in the afternoon, Bell said.

Bell emphasized that the DOT could also choose not to make any changes to the roadway.

Torres said his constituents seem to be most in favor of the six lanes with raise medians option, though it limits the opportunities for left turns off the highway, which he said is a concern to business owners.

Bell said that the project is still in its infancy, so it’s hard to guess when residents and commuters could expect to see it completed.

Costs for each alternative range from $25 million to $35 million, Bell said, adding that the department doesn’t know how much right of way will cost. Initial funding will come from state bond proceeds.

The department held a public meeting last month seeking to inform interested parties, as well as to gather feedback. The preferred alternative will be selected based on feedback from the public, Bell said.

“Feedback has really been in favor of proceeding with an alternative,” she said. “The majority of the public that we’ve heard from wants the congestion to be cleared out.”

The next step in the process is to present the department’s decision at another public meeting, which Bell said would likely happen within the next couple of months.

The roadway is home to gas stations and fast-food joints, banks and retailers, all of whom set up shop hoping for their piece of the revenue that those nearly 50,000 daily motorists offer each weekday.

Torres said the feedback he’s received from residents and business owners focuses on whether local needs will be met. He said local traffic needs to be able to easily reach businesses, while regional travelers want to get through town as efficiently as possible.

“It’s our community,” Torres said. “We don’t mind some delays and sharing that roadway, but our needs can’t be totally pushed aside just to get traffic through.”

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