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Bill seeking funds for Highway 380 reconstruction meets opposition

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Rep Anderson: Discussions could lead to ‘better solutions’

Proposed legislation to rebuild a portion of U.S. Highway 380 has run into strong opposition from some people who live and work in communities along the highway.

A group of local legislators and some of their agricultural and business constituents who transport livestock and goods in the area support House Bill 223 (HB 223), which would provide $15 million from 2020 to 2025 to redesign and reconstruct the section of U.S. 380 that runs from Hondo to Carrizozo to make it safe for trucks longer than 65 feet and thereby eliminate the need for current restrictions.

Those opposed say that large trucks are already allowed with the proper permits and that construction on that section of the highway — part of what is known as the Billy the Kid Scenic Trail — could harm historic sites, natural resources and the lifestyle of small communities.

“I am listening to all the arguments,” said District 66 Rep. Phelps Anderson of Roswell. “Often, discussions about solutions bring better solutions. … I am always an optimist. I think this is going to resolve itself in a satisfactory manner.”

He did note that the bulk of highway improvements this year will be funded by HB 2, which so far contains $915.28 million in state and federal funding to the New Mexico Department of Transportation, with some projects slated for the southeastern part of the state. The Highway 380 bill is being considered separate from that funding.

Anderson is one of four Republican co-sponsors of HB 223 and a member of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, due to consider HB 223 next. Other sponsors of the Highway 380 bill include District 58 Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, who introduced the measure, District 59 Rep. Greg Nibert and District 49 Rep. Gail Armstrong of Magdalena.

Given the Appropriations Committee work on HB 2 at this time, Anderson said, it is not clear when it will consider HB 223. Previously, the bill passed without a recommendation by a 8-2 vote out of the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee. The related House Joint Memorial 3 was approved by the same committee, 9-1 with a “do pass” recommendation.

Highway traffic long-standing issue

The controversy over the Hondo-Carrizozo stretch of Highway 380 goes back decades. The state Department of Transportation posted signs in the area in the early 1990s notifying vehicle drivers of the length and size restrictions, with critics of that action saying that proper procedures were not followed and due cause was never provided.

At the request of Ezzell and Nibert, the Transportation Department conducted a study in 2018 to see whether the restrictions were needed. The department analyzed crash data, traffic flow and 17 horizontal curves on the highway considered the most concerning. The July 2018 report concluded that the restrictions were justified for safety reasons and that the signs had been posted according to department rules. The report also specified the 13 curves in the Hondo-to-Carrizozo portion of the highway should be widened for safe travel of trucks longer than 65 feet, with three curves considered to represent significant safety risks for larger trucks.

Anderson and Nibert have said that ranchers, farmers and owners of stores in the area have told them that they need to be able to run trucks through the area.

“These are federal highways and there has to be access to agricultural producers to sell their food and fibers,” said Anderson, who added that he also understands why the residents of Lincoln, Capitan and the Bonito Valley have concerns about increased traffic.

Anderson and Nibert have said that the constituents they represent find the remedies available to them unsatisfactory. One is an alternative route that adds 70 to 80 miles to the journey, but Nibert said that can mean not only significantly more costs for small-business operators but added stress and weight loss for animals transported. Also, the state Transportation Department can issue permits for “good cause” to allow larger trucks on the highway, but the legislators said they have been told the permits are not as easy or convenient to obtain as some describe.

According to a Legislative Finance Committee report, which referred to information provided by the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, the permits often are given for local deliveries only.

Lincoln County Commissioner Elaine Allen said she has asked Ezzell why reconstruction is needed.

“I asked, can’t we then change the permitting process instead of changing the highway?” Allen said, adding that the discussion changed and the question wasn’t really answered.

Some community members protest bill

Allen and four other commissioners unanimously passed a resolution in August to support legislation to “correct safety issues” on Highway 380 and allow for the “removal of any restrictions prohibiting truck traffic.” The resolution also calls for “maintaining preservation steps for historic Lincoln.”

The town of Lincoln, home to the annual Billy the Kid pageant, has been a National Historic Landmark since 1960 and is the most visited historic site in the state, according to the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Allen said the discussion about U.S. 380 has “morphed” since the resolution was passed. She said the bill before the New Mexico Legislature focuses not on safety measures, but major construction, and doesn’t address historic preservation at all.

She and several other residents of Lincoln have called, emailed and met with legislators and spoken up at public meetings to express their opposition to the bill, saying that increased truck traffic could disrupt their way of life, damage historic and adobe structures and change natural landscapes. But they are not alone in expressing concerns.

Lynda Sanchez, a historian, retired educator and member of the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project, said that construction in the area threatens an entire ecosystem of plants and animals; could have a detrimental effect on Mongollon, Apache and Hispanic camp site dwellings and ceremonial grounds; and could lead to sinkholes or damage to yet-to-be-discovered underground cave passages.

Some people near Rio Bonito also have expressed concerns that construction could harm water resources that feed the river and support plant and animal habitats, while some residents of Capitan also have talked with Rep. Anderson about their concerns with construction and traffic through their small, rural community.

If funding were to be provided by this session of the Legislature, the state Transportation Department said in its July 2018 report that design and planning would take at least two or three years before any construction could begin. The Legislative Finance Committee also stated in its Fiscal Impact Report that the Department of Transportation would be required to consult first with the State Historic Preservation Office to determine if other alternatives to reconstruction exist.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.