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Aztec hopes for a revival as long-awaited bypass awaits review

The future entry to the East Aztec Arterial, off state Highway 550. Twenty-five years into Aztec’s long-awaited bypass project, downtown business owners look forward to a quieter, more walkable downtown. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)
Project would reduce truck traffic and congestion, provide a walkable Main Street

Aztec business owners and residents may be weary of thinking about, but not talking about, the state Highway 550 bypass project. The long-awaited bypass, which has been in the works for more than two decades, now faces another apparent roadblock.

The officially named East Aztec Arterial Project is under review for utilities considerations by the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

Jeff Blackburn, interim city manager of Aztec, estimates that the idea has been around since the 1990s. Feasibility studies began in 2007 and were followed by the completion of Phase 1-A in 2009. This phase created a paved road off Highway 173 toward what became Tiger Park Sports Complex in 2010, and marked the beginning of the arterial project.

Phase 1-B began in 2011 with the construction of the arterial route heading northeast off Highway 550, just east of Aztec.

Phase 2 is underway and faces the New Mexico Department of Transportation review. DOT’s role is oversight of the federal dollars, the process and standards. “It’s guidance,” said NMDOT Creative Manager Miguel Fierro.

After the review, the project will enter a phase of plans, specs and estimates.

Jeff Blackburn, interim city manager of Aztec, standing above Tiger Park Lake. The Aztec bypass could lead to increased development for recreation in the area. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)
View of Phase 1-A/Road from Highway 173 to Tiger Sports Complex. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)
A view of designated arterial route southwest of Tiger Sports Complex. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)

Blackburn said that about 2½ miles of the nearly 4-mile bypass remain to be completed, at an estimated cost of $18 million. That stretch must cross a ridge south of Tiger Sports Complex. Phase 2 will connect the two sections.

“All rights of way are obtained, all archaeological studies are done, all environmental studies are done, all utilities studies are done,” Blackburn said, “to the point that it is just being reviewed by NMDOT to be sure that it meets specifications because they are funding part of the project.”

He added in an email that “all the necessary funding is available if the bids come in near the engineer’s estimate.” Most of the funding will come from the state and NMDOT, along with funding from the city of Aztec. Blackburn gave a ballpark figure of 90% coming from the state plus other sources and 10% provided by the city of Aztec.

” “Tentatively … we feel like they should be done with their review no later than January 2023 … and we should be in bid process in mid-January, February, somewhere in that area,” he said.

Blackburn, who plans to interview for the city manager position after managing city parks for 15 years, hopes to develop the area around Tiger Sports Complex and Tiger Lake. In 1962, the Bureau of Land Management made 520 acres available for parks and recreation use.

The city of Aztec recently built an 18-hole Frisbee golf course and dog park in that section. He envisions an ATV course and other recreational features to attract more tourism.

Blackburn sees the bypass as a potential game-changer for downtown Aztec.

“The whole concept is to relieve a lot of that pressure off downtown … so downtown is a more friendly walkabout,” he said. “We’ve got that facade. We’re really the last mountain town if you think about it – from Ouray, Silverton and Durango.”

“But still, we have a state highway running right down the middle of our downtown, and that is a lot of heavy truck traffic, a lot of local traffic, a lot of thru-traffic. We want to capitalize on that, we want to create downtown business. We want to create tourism with that business,” he said.

Downtown businesses: ‘A sweet, beautiful town’

Downtown business owners welcome the project, and think that it will enrich the lives of residents in Aztec.

“I think it will bring more business,” said Susan Aguirre, seven-year owner of Lil Aztec Flower Shop, 101 N. Main St. “It will take off the large oil field trucks … water trucks. They come down the hill from Bloomfield and they gain speed, so sometimes it’s hard for them to negotiate. I believe we can tie it all together to have more businesses ‘walkable’. I live on the top of my business and the big trucks just shake the building.”

Although she lamented the “red tape” that the city faces, she said she has faith that the current administration will bring the project to fruition, and with it, more business and tourists.

“I’d like everybody to know that Aztec is just a sweet, beautiful town,” Aguirre said.

Randy Hodges, owner of Rubia’s Fine Mexican Dining for 22 years, believes his business will remain strong, but that the bypass is essential for downtown.

“I don’t think it will have any effect on our business, whatsoever, but getting the heavy truck traffic off Main Street is going to be very important to the survival of downtown Aztec. But we’re a destination restaurant, so people are going to find us,” Hodges said.

However, he said, progress of the bypass has been “horrible.”

Amanda Harig, illustrator and Feat of Clay cooperative member, believes the semitrailers and commercial traffic deter foot traffic, and estimated that she sees seven or eight heavy trucks per hour.

“It’s annoying,” she said. “I’ve been here for five years now, and when it comes up in conversation, there is such disgust.”

Micah Fiske of 550 Brewing Pizza Parlor, said that although the delays have been frustrating, she hopes the project eventually will bring more parades and events, more foot traffic and a safer, more walkable Main Street.

As a county resident she’s unable to vote on city issues, which she regrets.

Business owners, regardless of where they reside, can attend City Council meetings and contact city leaders directly. Upcoming meetings are Nov. 8 and Dec. 13, as posted on the city of Aztec website.

A town’s anticipation: The longest 2 miles

Despite the delays, Blackburn has kept a forward focus, looking ahead to the possibility of recreational development and an improved downtown.

“In my government experience, any project that involves government funding, grant funding … takes time,” Blackburn said. “It’s a matter of first off – the idea, you know formulating – and the concepts coming to fruition.”

Every project requires 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 was funded by the American Recovery Act during the Obama administration, which was “quickest,” he said. Aztec officials have worked with NMDOT the past five years, and funding usually takes two to three years. The process has been typical, according to Blackburn.

“A project this size there’s a lot of moving parts. All various studies that had to be completed,” he reiterated. “There’s an old dump out there … that will have to be disposed of. Even though $18 million is probably not big to the state, in Aztec this is the biggest project we’ve ever taken on.”

Complicating the long process, Blackburn said, is the fact that government turns over every two to four years.

Patience and persistence have been the keys to moving ahead. Twenty-five years into the process, the bypass finally is coming together.

“I think it’s a testament to the city of Aztec, the current commission and the current staff that we are really close to the finish line here,” Blackburn said.

“This is really where the rubber meets the road.”