Future entrance to Eastern Aztec Highway off State Route 550. Twenty-five years after the Azteca’s long-awaited bypass project, downtown business owners are looking forward to a quieter, more walkable downtown. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)
Project reduces track tAlleviating traffic jams and crowding, providing easy-to-walk main streets
Aztec business owners and residents may be tired of thinking about the Route 550 Bypass project, but they don’t talk about it. After more than 20 years of construction, the long-awaited bypass now faces another distinct obstacle.
The officially named East Aztec Arterial Project is under public utility review by the New Mexico Department of Transportation.
Aztec interim mayor Jeff Blackburn estimates that the idea has been around since the 1990s. A feasibility study he started in 2007 and completed Phase 1-A in 2009. This phase marked the beginning of the mainline project by creating a paved road from Highway 173 to the Tiger Park Sports Complex in 2010.
Phase 1-B began in 2011 with construction of a highway northeast from Highway 550, just east of the Azteca.
Phase 2 is underway and is pending review by the New Mexico Department of Transportation. DOT’s role is to oversee federal budgets, processes, and standards. “This is guidance,” said NMDOT Creative Manager Miguel Fierro.
After review, the project enters the planning, specification and estimating phases.
Aztec Interim City Manager Jeff Blackburn standing on Tiger Park Lake. Aztec bypass could lead to increased development for recreation in this area. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)
A view of the designated highway southwest of the Tiger Sports Complex. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)
Blackburn said about 2.5 miles of the about 4-mile bypass is unfinished, at an estimated cost of $18 million. The section must cross a ridge south of the Tiger Sports Complex. Phase 2 he connects the two sections.
“All right-of-way is taken. All archaeological studies have been done. All environmental studies have been done. All utility studies have been done,” said Blackburn.
“If the bid is close to the engineer’s estimate, all the necessary funds are available,” he added in an email. Most of the funding comes from the state and his NMDOT, along with funding from the City of Azteca.
“Tentatively … we feel we need to complete the review by January 2023 … and somewhere in the region, we should start the bidding process in mid-January, February.” He said.
After managing city parks for 15 years, Blackburn, who is interviewing for a city manager job, wants to develop the Tiger Sports Complex and the area around Tiger Lake. In 1962, the Bureau of Land Management made 520 acres available for parks and recreation.
The City of Azteca recently built an 18-hole Frisbee golf course and dog park on its lot. He envisions ATV courses and other recreational features to attract more tourists.
Blackburn believes the bypass could be a game-changer for downtown Aztec.
“The whole concept is to take a lot of the pressure off downtown…so downtown is a friendlier walkabout,” he said. As far as I can see, this is the last mountain town of Cry, Silverton, and Durango.”
“Nevertheless, the national highway runs through the center of downtown, and it is a large number of large trucks, local traffic, and through traffic. he said.
Downtown Business: “Sweet and Beautiful City”
Downtown business owners welcome the project and believe it will enrich the lives of Aztec residents.
“I think it will bring in more business,” said Susan Aguirre, seven-year owner of the Lil Aztec Flower Shop at 101 N. Main St. As they speed down the hill from Bloomfield, it can be difficult to negotiate. I believe we can tie it all together to make more businesses ‘walkable’. I live above my business and only big trucks rock the building. “
Although she lamented the “bureaucracy” facing the city, she said she believed the current administration would bring the project to fruition, which would bring more business and more tourists.
“I want people to know that the Aztecs are a sweet and beautiful city,” Aguirre said.
Randy Hodges, 22-year owner of Rubia’s Fine Mexican Dining, believes his business remains strong, but believes the bypass is vital to downtown.
“I don’t think it will affect our business in any way, but keeping the main street clear of heavy truck traffic would be very important to the survival of downtown Aztec. It’s a destination restaurant, so people will find us,” Hodges said.
However, he said the bypass progress was “terrifying”.
Amanda Harig, an illustrator and member of the Feat of Clay cooperative, believes semi-trailers and commercial traffic are blocking people’s traffic, and says she sees seven to eight large trucks an hour. I’m guessing.
“It’s annoying,” she said. “I’ve been here for five years and it’s very disgusting when it’s talked about.”
Micah Fiske of 550 Brewing Pizza Parlor said he was frustrated by the delay, but hoped the project would ultimately lead to more parades and events, more foot traffic, and a safer, more walkable Main Street. Said he wanted
As a county resident, she is unable to vote on city issues and regrets it.
Business owners can attend city council meetings and have direct contact with city leaders, regardless of where they live. Upcoming meetings are November 8th and December 13th, as posted on the Aztec City website.
City Expectations: Up to 2 miles
Despite the delays, Blackburn has remained positive with an eye toward recreational development and the potential for downtown improvements.
“My experience with government is that projects involving government funding or grants take time,” Blackburn said. “It’s the first problem: formulating the idea and bringing the concept to life.”
All projects require a formal plan that can be submitted for grant application. The project has three phases: 1-A, 1-B and now Phase 2. The first phase, funded by the American Recovery Act during the Obama administration, was “the earliest,” he said. Aztec officials have been working with NMDOT for the past five years, but funding typically takes two to three years. According to Blackburn, the process is typical.
“There are a lot of moving parts in a project of this magnitude. All the different studies that had to be completed,” he repeated. “There’s an old dump over there…it has to be disposed of. $18 million is probably not a lot for the state, but it’s the biggest project the Aztecs have ever done.”
Complicating this lengthy process, Blackburn says, is the fact that governments change every two to four years.
Patience and persistence were the keys to moving forward. After 25 years, the bypass is finally completed.
“I think it’s a testament to the city of Azteca, the current commission and the current staff that we’re really close to the finish line here,” said Blackburn.
“This is where the rubber actually meets the road.”