N.M. 4 Corridor Study is underway

-A A +A
By Arin McKenna


On July 23, the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) held its first public meeting on an N.M. 4 corridor study currently underway. 

Huitt-Zollars is conducting the study, which is currently in phase 1. Huitt-Zolars Project Manager Scott Eddings stressed that phase 1 is an information gathering stage. 

“We’re trying to identify deficiencies that exist out there today and put pencils to paper and come up with estimates of what those may cost,” Eddings said. 

No funding has been identified for the project as yet, but this phase is one of the preliminary steps for obtaining federal and state moneys. 

Eddings also noted that with the number of different agency lands NM 4 passes through (including national park, national forest, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Los Alamos and Sandoval counties), there could be opportunities for pooling resources for specific projects. 

Major reconfigurations−such as redesigning the hairpin curves−are not under consideration.

“We’re looking at minor geometric improvements on deficiencies,” Eddings said. “We’re not thinking this is a reconstruction job. I think there are edge treatments that we can do that are cost sensitive and will fit the need.”

The focus is on improvements such as widening the highway, adding passing lanes, improving drainage, adding guardrails and shoulders and installing rock fall barriers. 

Marron and Associates is providing environmental services for the project. Senior Environmental Project Manager Eric Johnson discussed some of the issues Marron will be looking at, including the impact on ground and surface water, archeological sites, vegetation and wildlife, including endangered species such as the Mexican spotted owl and the Jemez Mountains salamander.

“We recognize that this is a very scenic corridor, this is a recreation corridor,” Johnson said. “This is an important area that has a lot of potential. So visually, as well as for recreation, we’re going to pay a lot of attention to that and what the needs are.”

The project scope runs from Pajarito Road in White Rock to La Cueva, something residents took issue with. 

 “It seems that by excluding New Mexico Route 4 East of White Rock (to NM 502) we’re missing the boat and probably the section of road with the worse problem,” Khal Spencer said. Spencer is a member of the Los Alamos County transportation board, but was speaking as a board member of the Bicycle Coalition of New Mexico. 

“It’s got the most traffic. It’s got the worse shoulders. It’s got the worse mix of traffic and I think it’s where we’ve had most of our crashes. So why the state is leaving that out is beyond me.”

Bike lanes were a major topic of discussion.

“Speaking for the bicycle coalition, we would like to see the money spent where it’s going to provide the most access to the most bicycles and the most safety to the most bicyclists,” Spencer said. 

“Bicycle safety is one of the recurring themes from everyone I talk to. You have a very active bicycle community up here, and we recognize that,” Eddings said, noting that feedback to date  calls for five-foot minimum shoulders/bike lanes.

Spencer wanted assurances that shoulders would be legally designated as bike lanes. 

“The State of New Mexico has a terrible habit of putting shoulders on some of its highways and then partially paving them, so you have a huge pavement lip, which makes the shoulder utterly useless to bicyclists and downright dangerous to bicyclists and motorcyclists,” Spencer said, explaining how a two- or three-inch lip and broken shoulder pavement put bicyclists at risk and forces them into the roadway. 

Spencer also suggested favoring bike lanes on uphill grades, where cyclists are moving much slower than traffic, over descents where they can match traffic speeds. 

Jeff Harris, natural resource specialist for the Jemez Ranger District, suggested having at least some sections with separate bike paths for recreational cyclists uncomfortable with being next to traffic. 

“I know the very dedicated, die hard bicyclists like to be next to the vehicles on a bike lane attached to the pavement,” Harris acknowledged. “But what we have on the Santa Fe National Forest are recreational riders, and not necessarily vehicalists.”

“The existing bicycle population that uses this loop would take a very dim view of being told to use a side path, because, in general, side paths are not designed to be used by high speed, competitive, recreational cyclists,” Spencer responded, explaining that a cyclist traveling 30 miles per hour is safer on the roadway. 

“I personally support the idea of building this path for a different clientele. But if the notion is to get everyone else off the road, I think there is going to be a disagreement. If this side path is built, I don’t want people coming up alongside me and telling me to get off the road.”

A LANL archeologist was concerned about archeological sites, especially if a separate bike path is considered, siting the study currently underway for a proposed Bandelier multiuse trail.

“There are many, many archeological sites that would be impacted and in need of mitigation for that project to go through. Putting the bicycle lane next to the road probably shrinks that effect pretty significantly.” 

“The richness of archeological sites is going to be an issue,” Johnson admitted, noting that the preliminary study has identified approximately 600 sites. “It’s a cost factor, too. We’d rather avoid them than hit them, because we have to do a full excavation/data recovery that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.”

Harris also pointed out that N.M. 4 is a National Scenic Byway, and urged planners to include paved turnouts and scenic overlooks. 

“Right now, they’re typically non-paved, just graded areas, and they’re a danger getting off at 50 miles per hour. It’s also a safety concern getting back on from gravel to pavement,” Harris said.

Harris also asked that culverts installed under bridges, such as those along the East Fork of the Jemez River, be redesigned. 

“Right now they restrict fish movement up and down the East Fork, because they are culverts, not half culverts to allow the flow through,” Harris said. 

Others wanted to make sure that repaving was done correctly, siting the inferior paving done on recent road work.

A commuter who lives on the other side of Jemez Springs wants to see passing lanes restored so vehicles can get around slow moving RVs. According to her, nine passing zones have been reduced to four over the years. 

“I would like a serious look at the passing zones and have them brought back, because sometimes right now it’s almost impossible to be a law abiding citizen and get home in any reasonable length of time.”

Huitt-Zollars anticipates publishing an agency review of phase 1 by late August or early September. Agencies will have a couple of months to review and comment on the draft, with a final report anticipated by late November. 

To express comments or concerns about the corridor, email Eric Johnson at eric@marroninc.com.