Study: Widening of U.S. 550 in New Mexico Didn’t Improve Safety, Economy

April 9, 2008

Traffic crashes have increased on U.S. 550 since the state embarked on a $345 million project 10 years ago to widen the highway from two lanes to four between San Ysidro and Bloomfield in New Mexico.

The project, started by the administration of then-Gov. Gary Johnson and still being paid for — was meant to improve safety and give a boost to economic development in the Four Corners.

That hasn’t happened, according to a newly released study and a state Web site, the Albuquerque Journal reported in a copyright story.

The state Department of Transportation’s Research Bureau wants the University of New Mexico to do a more detailed analysis over the next 18 months.

“We’re going to consider not only accidents, but also the economic impact of that road to the community,” said Jerome Hall, a UNM civil engineering professor who did the study commissioned by the state Department of Transportation.

The study found that ease of travel has led to faster speeds, contributing to the accident rate. The severity of crashes has dropped on U.S. 550, the successor to the two-lane N.M. 44, but the number of crashes on the 118-mile stretch has jumped nearly as much as the increase in traffic, it said.

“This finding suggests that the safety consequences of the reconstruction of U.S. 550 are neutral,” the study concluded.

The volume of annual travel on the highway rose by about 35 percent in the years after the road was widened. Design work began in 1998; the road was finished in 2001.

“You simply look at the road and it looks like it’s wide and flat and new, and it looks like people vote with their foot on the accelerator pedal as to what they think the speed ought to be,” Hall said.

The Transportation Department’s Web site says improved economic development in the Four Corners, predicted when highway construction began in 1999, has not materialized. A 2004 Legislative Finance Committee study had reached the same conclusion.

The Web site does cite positive impacts — less time spent traveling, a smoother highway and a decrease in the average cost per collision.

Hall’s 2007 study found speeding was the major factor in crashes on U.S. 550, rising threefold over the years before the highway was improved.

The study said per-year crashes jumped by 31 percent, from 85 a year in 1996-1998 to 111.5 a year in 2002-2005, and that fatal crashes increased slightly along with larger increases in crashes with injury and those involving only property damage. Alcohol-related crashes dropped 20 percent. Head-on collisions dropped 66 percent.

Crashes involving overturned vehicles, animals on the road and fixed objects rose significantly. The redesign added guard rails and retaining walls, which could be providing “additional opportunities for errant motorists to strike something,” the study said.

To pay for the reconstruction’s $345 million cost, the state took advantage of a federal bonding program that let it pay back the bonds over 20 years with future federal funds. Interest on the bonds will cost New Mexico an extra $142 million.

The financing plan, however, meant the road was finished in three years, rather than the more-than-two decades such a project might otherwise have taken.

A 1995 Transportation Department pre-construction study found that widening the road to four lanes would reduce the potential for head-on collisions, but that it was likely the project “will not create the safety benefits people anticipate.”

The Federal Highway Administration said, however, it would “significantly improve roadway safety and expand economic development opportunities in northern New Mexico.”

Source: Albuquerque Journal.

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