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Study team suggests US 380 upgrades

The U.S. Highway 380 corridor project starts at mile marker 158 in east Roswell near White Mill Road. The study area heads east for 84 miles to the Texas state line. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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State transportation managers and their consultants are recommending a $150 million upgrade to an 84-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 380 from east Roswell to the Texas state line, but they said Wednesday that it could be years before construction funding is available.

The District 2 Office of the New Mexico Department of Transportation has been working for a couple of years on the US 380 Corridor Study with the Federal Highway Administration and consulting firms led by Bohannan Huston Inc. of Albuquerque.

“We want change on US 380,” said Francisco Sanchez, recently appointed the District 2 engineer. “We want to see improvements. We want to see the safety enhanced. My family, myself, we drive this road all the time. When my wife drives with my family, I get nervous with them out there.”

Study team members said that evaluations determined that fatality rates and the incidents of severe accidents along the corridor are below the state average, even given three additional fatalities since September 2020, when the initial corridor study occurred. But Sanchez acknowledged that heavy traffic periods can cause 10 to 15 vehicles to line up at a time, with concerns about what that means for people trying to pass each other.

The U.S. 380 corridor begins at Mile Post 158 in east Roswell, which is near White Mill Road, and runs east through Lea County and its towns of Caprock and Tatum, continuing to the Texas state line. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles travel the stretch of road each day, with officials saying that traffic load is expected to reach 4,000 vehicles a day by 2040.

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The team has completed Phases A and B of the project, which is to study current road conditions and safety concerns and to recommend a preferred alternative for improvements. As state officials await funding opportunities for construction, their next steps will be to conduct environmental studies and then to complete engineering design and develop construction and bidding documents.

The preferred alternative presented during a virtual meeting was labeled Alternative 1 and involves six features. The primary component will be to create more passing lanes. Currently the road has only one eastbound passing lane, although the highway turns into a four-lane road as it runs through the town of Tatum.

Under Alternative 1, the outside portions of the existing two-lane road will be extended so that alternating eastbound and westbound passing lanes are added every 7 to 10 miles. Those distances are recommended by traffic experts to avoid confusing drivers, team members said. Each passing lane would be about 1 mile to 1 1/2 miles long.

The other five components of the upgrade would reduce visibility problems at existing intersections by adding turn lanes or by other remedies; improve pavement surfaces; replace guardrails and roadside barriers to meet current standards; upgrade drainage structures in areas widened for passing lanes; and repair a bridge over the Pecos River.

Albert Thomas, a project manager with Bohannan Huston, said that all alternatives were scored by representatives with state and federal agencies and Alternative 1 was ranked best at meeting current needs.

The next highest-ranking alternative was a “no build” or “no action” alternative. The third-highest ranking alternative, Alternative 3, would create side-by-side passing lanes on both sides of the highway, creating a four-lane highway every 5 miles or so. That project would cost about $300 million.

Thomas said the team will keep Alternative 3 in mind as the project proceeds, but he considered it unlikely that state officials would allocate such funding to this project.

“We have to look at it from a statewide priority basis,” Thomas said. “If we only need $150 million for this corridor to make the improvements to get this corridor to the 20-year life of this corridor, then we can use that $150 million … to improve other corridors.”

Officials also said that they are not recommending any speed limit changes or designation of the area as a “safety corridor.”

Sanchez said that each transportation district is allowed only two safety corridors as a general rule in an effort to reduce fatalities and severe accidents. Safety corridors require reduced speeds, the use of headlights or other safety measures. Sanchez said that he does not think that U.S. 380 would meet the criteria, given its crash rates. He also said that District 2 has four safety corridors already, a portion of U.S. 285; State Road 128; State Road 40 from Ruidoso to Capitan; and U.S. 82 in the Cloudcroft area.

Public comments on the study or recommendation can be made until April 2. People can send comments by emailing the project team at US380@bhinc.com, by calling 505-798-7857 or by sending letters to Bohannan Huston at 7500 Jefferson St. N.E., Albuquerque, 87109. The project website is http://project.bhinc.com/US380.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.