N.M. 502 slogs forward

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County: Rodgers calls new plan a compromise that will please no one

By Arin McKenna

The saga of N.M. 502 continues.

The Los Alamos County Council voted 6-1 on Tuesday to adopt a new plan for road improvements that meets New Mexico Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration criteria.

The plan revises one adopted by council in February that failed to meet NMDOT and FHWA approval, risking $3.8 million in State Transportation Improvement Program funds earmarked for the project.
Councilor Geoff Rodgers made the motion to approve the proposal, which passed 6-1, with Councilor Vincent Chiravalle opposed.

“We have to achieve a balance and that balance is probably going to satisfy no one. And the balance that’s been presented is the best that we’re going to get within the constraints that we face with the threat of losing the federal funding to at least fix part of this project,” Rodgers said.

The compromise integrates a plan proposed by NMDOT in 2007 with the option approved in February. Council had rejected the 2007 plan because it failed to adequately address the concerns of residential neighborhoods and the county’s desire for a more community-oriented, multi-modal approach to road design.

The February proposal would have redesigned a section running from DP Road to Airport Road. The revised plan is more closely aligned with boundaries set by NMDOT in 2007, covering an area from Knecht Street to a point between Canyon Road and the driveways to Crossroads Bible Church and the Christian Church. The remaining stretch of road will be addressed at a later date.

Revising the boundaries accomplishes several goals.

Because it is within the boundaries of the NMDOT plan, the environmental assessment completed in 2007 can be updated. To include the stretch between Tewa Loop and Airport Road, the county would have had to conduct a new environmental assessment. A new study could not be completed in time to move forward with the project before funding expires in 2014.

Including the section between Knecht and DP Road also allows the county address the need to replace a water line starting at Knecht and to include the frontage for the new Trinity Site development.

A traffic impact analysis study is currently underway for the Trinity Site.

That will be submitted in mid-January and become part of the revised environmental assessment.

The county has asked Kroger/Smith’s to submit a plan for consolidating the two Trinity Drive entrances to the Mari Mac Center into one at the center of the property, directly across from an entrance to the Trinity Site development.

Public Works Director Philo Shelton said the county will work to reach an intergovernmental agreement with NMDOT so work on the Trinity Site frontage and utilities can begin in 2013, in conjunction with the Kroger/Smith’s construction.

The most controversial element of the revised plan is the need to widen the road to four lanes between Central Avenue and an area just east of Canyon Road. Although some residents strongly supported that change both last night and at earlier public hearings, Eastern area residents turned out en masse in February to argue against a four-lane highway at the edge of their neighborhood.

The new plan also merges the eastbound lanes to one lane in the area of the Crossroads Bible Church and the Christian Church. That will make that stretch of road too dangerous to install a HAWK (high-intensity activated crosswalk) signal included in the February design.

A HAWK signal will be installed at the Canyon Rim trailhead.

NMDOT and FHWA are requiring four lanes in that area to assure that the level of service for Arroyo Lane and Sombrillo Court meets minimum standards. The agencies will not approve funding for the project unless that change is made.

“There are very few cars coming in and out, but the highway department said if drivers have to wait too long they’re going to get impatient, they’re going to make a bad decision and they’re going to pull out when the gap isn’t large enough,” County Engineer/Traffic Engineer Kyle Zimmerman explained.

Several councilors expressed concerns about eliminating the HAWK crossing closest to the East Park Pool.

“There’s a level of service for cars. Is there a level of service for pedestrians as well? At what point do kids not go all the way down to where the HAWK is and they just start making their own way across the street?” Rodgers said. “If one car has a level of service that fails, we redo the whole project, but pedestrians are on their own? I don’t believe the one HAWK addresses the issue for all pedestrians there.”

Council asked staff to look at installing a HAWK at Arroyo Lane for pedestrian traffic to the pool and churches.
David Quintana, technical support engineer for NMDOT, said the environmental assessment must include another public hearing.

Quintana said the two significant changes from the 2007 plan that must be discussed at that hearing are the roundabout at Central Avenue and raised medians.

Chiravalle asserted that the roundabout was costing the county money for updating the environmental assessment and putting the county at risk of losing funds.

Quintana reiterated that the only issue putting funding for the project at risk was the LOS for the side streets.

Quintana also said environmental assessments have a five-year shelf life, so an update is required at this time. He noted that roundabouts were considered in the original environmental assessment, so including one now does not significantly change the plan.

The roundabout design calls for two eastbound lanes, with one westbound through lane and another lane for right turns onto Central Avenue.

If the LOS studies indicate two westbound through lanes are necessary, sufficient right of way is available to make the change.

With council’s approval, work on the environmental assessment will begin this week and take six to nine months.

Quintana said that once the Finding of Significant Impact is issued, things should move quickly.

The project has to be contracted by September 2014 to retain the STIP funds. Construction should begin in the spring of 2015.