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The road more traveled: Here's what it took to get US Highway 550 built 20 years ago

Gary Johnson says road was state's most-needed improvement

Mike Easterling   | Farmington Daily Times

This is the second of two articles on the construction of U.S. Highway 550.

FARMINGTON — When Gary Johnson was elected to his first term as governor of New Mexico in November 1994, he insists he already was well aware of how badly a new four-lane highway needed to be constructed between San Juan County and the Albuquerque area.

Johnson recalled traveling the existing road, the two-lane N.M. Highway 44, extensively as a child for family ski vacations in Durango, Colorado. Even though he was too young to drive, he has no trouble remembering the frustration of getting stuck behind an 18-wheeler for miles at a time and the peril involved in trying to get around those large trucks on the narrow, winding road.

"It was dangerous," Johnson said. "Everybody can kind of concur with that."

PART ONE: Looking back at US 550 as highway nears its 20th anniversary

Johnson said he campaigned on the issue, believing it would help stimulate development in the Four Corners region. But having seen for himself how motorists were taking their life in their own hands by traveling to and from Farmington in those days, he believed it was first and foremost a safety issue.

"In my mind, it was the No. 1 improvement that needed to be made in the state," he said. " … I didn't need to be told it should be a four-lane highway."

When Johnson moved into the governor's office, he brought with him as part of his administration an ardent supporter of the project — his plainspoken new transportation secretary, Pete Rahn. Rahn was a one-time insurance agent who had served as the San Juan County treasurer and the president of the New Mexico Association of Counties.

But Rahn was also a Farmington resident, and that meant he had even more experience with the shortcomings of N.M. Highway 44 than Johnson did. When he took over as transportation secretary, the project for which San Juan County residents had long advocated — the creation of a new, four-lane highway to replace the miserable existing road — suddenly had the champion it needed.

Part of the new road already had been built. The 22-mile stretch of N.M. 44 between San Ysidro and Bernalillo had been widened to four lanes, leaving the 120-mile stretch between San Ysidro and Bloomfield to be done. Led by Rahn, the Johnson administration developed a plan to use bond sales from future federal highway funding to pay for the project — something no state had ever tried before, though many would emulate the New Mexico model later.

"We created a new market on Wall Street," said Johnson, who later left the Republican Party and mounted unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 2012 and 2016, and the U.S. Senate in 2018, all as the Libertarian Party candidate

Johnson insisted it was the only way New Mexico could raise the capital necessary to pay for the construction.

"Pete Rahn deserves the credit," he said. "He came up with the notion."

Zang Wood, former president of the San Juan County Historical Society, also pegged Rahn as the main reason why the project would become a success.

"Pete Rahn was the ramrod of them doing that," he said. "He had some stroke in Santa Fe at that time. (The Legislature) would have just left it two lanes."

Cost estimates for the project varied widely, beginning at $253 million in 1996 but ballooning to $316 million by the time N.M. Highway 44 was renamed U.S. Highway 550 in August 1998.

Enter the Koch brothers

The state released its bidding specifications for the highway in the summer of 1997, and 30 companies requested copies. But in the end, only one company to bid on the project — Mesa Developers, a Wichita, Kansas-based company that would design the highway, manage its construction and provide a 20-year warranty on the work.

Mesa was part of Koch Industries, a firm that was owned by brothers Charles and David Koch, the latter of whom died in 2019. For the past several years, the Koch brothers have drawn the ire of Democrats all over the country for their generous financial support of conservative political candidates and causes. But in the late 1990s, their profile was considerably lower, and their involvement in a massive public works project in a state that had voted predominately blue since the 1930s didn't raise the kind of eyebrows it would these days.

Aztec businessman Jerry Sandel, who represented the area in the state House of Representatives as a Democrat from 1971 to 2000, acknowledged the irony of the Koch brothers' involvement in the project, even with a Republican governor in office. He said he doubted a similar arrangement would pass muster in today's polarized political environment.

"They have become so political," he said. "Before, it was known they were definitely big Republicans, but they were not as involved in elections as they are today."

But Sandel noted the deal with the Koch brothers provided the only real funding option for doing the project all at once. Essentially, he said, Mesa Developers fronted the money for the highway, and the state paid the company back through the bond sales.

Otherwise, the project would have been built in 5- or 10-mile increments over many years, he said.

MORE: NMDOT looks toward reconstructing section of U.S. Highway 64

Sandel helped shepherd the bill that funded the project through the Legislature, securing both Democratic and Republican support — a role for which he was credited by former Farmington Mayor and state Rep. Tom Taylor. Sandel's near-30-year tenure at the Roundhouse had left him intimately acquainted with the old highway as he commuted regularly from San Juan County, and he wanted it replaced as much as anyone.

"It was a relief for me (when the new highway opened)," he said, recalling that, in the old days, when he left Farmington to make the drive to Santa Fe, he usually had to stop for a cup of coffee or glass of iced tea in Cuba just to collect his wits after enduring the stress of N.M. Highway 44. "Cuba was a godsend, I tell you."

The project continued to gain momentum throughout the late 1990s, despite the opposition of many lawmakers. Among them was then-state Sen. Billy McKibben, a Republican who represented Lea, Roosevelt and Curry counties in southeast New Mexico for nearly 20 years.

In an interview years later with the Illinois Business Journal, McKibben — who died in 2017 — was highly critical of Rahn, who went on to serve in a similar capacity in Missouri and Maryland before retiring earlier this year, and Koch Industries. McKibben characterized the U.S. 550 project as unworthy and suggested that Johnson pushed it through it as a favor to a friend and supporter, former state Sen. Ray Kysar, a Farmington Republican.

Nevertheless, the project gained legislative approval in the summer of 1999, and Johnson signed the measure into law. Work began shortly thereafter, with completion scheduled before the end of 2001.

The misgivings expressed by McKibben and others eventually did lead to a 2000 investigation into the deal by then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid, a Democrat. But Madrid found nothing amiss and concluded her probe without taking any action.

Foresight and hindsight

Hopes for the new highway were high in the Farmington area. In a Jan. 5, 2000, story in The Daily Times, Kysar was quoted as saying, "It's going to be the most wonderful thing that's every happened to San Juan County as far as economic development and the safety of our citizens."

Margaret McDaniel, director of the San Juan Economic Development Service, had sounded a similar tone the previous summer, telling The Daily Times, "It will change the perception of San Juan County."

But other local officials were more circumspect. Wilfred Beaupre, a board member of the Economic Development Service, was quoted in that same story as saying, "It's not going to be a panacea."

Fast forward 20 years, and there seems to be little argument that the construction of U.S. Highway 550 has provided substantial economic benefits not just to Farmington, but the whole area.

"I think it's one of the best things they ever did," Wood said, adding that the entire San Juan Basin has profited from the road.

Taylor said the construction of the highway provided San Juan County with its first major corridor to the central part of the state and helped connect it to the rest of New Mexico. He said the remote nature of the Four Corners area means that Farmington has always had as much in common with the nearby communities in Colorado, Utah and Arizona as it has with the state in which it is located.

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Perhaps that explains why, during his tenure in the Legislature, Taylor customarily introduced himself to his fellow lawmakers at the beginning of a session as, "the legislator from the southern-most city in Colorado."

He said the U.S. Highway 550 corridor from Bernalillo to Bloomfield is the most important roadway in the entire region, making the Four Corners more accessible to tourists and truck drivers alike. Without it, he questions whether attractions such as Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Chaco Canyon National Historic Site, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Mesa Verde National Park would see the number of visitors they do. That makes it an indispensable part of Farmington's efforts to rebrand itself as an outdoor recreation jumping-off point, he said.

He also believes that the business community in Farmington's neighbor to the north, Durango, Colorado, owes a debt of gratitude to New Mexico for building the highway.

"From a commerce perspective, almost all the deliveries to Durango come through Albuquerque, not Wolf Creek," he said, referring to the Wolf Creek Pass on U.S. Highway 160, a high-elevation route known for being treacherous during the winter months.

Sandel also lauds the economic impact of the highway, especially as efforts to bring a railroad back to San Juan County have languished and passenger air service to the Four Corners Regional Airport has been irregular.

In his mind, Farmington itself would look and feel quite different if it were still relying on the old N.M. Highway 44 as its lifeline to the Albuquerque area. He estimated the population would be 20 to 25 percent lower than it is if U.S. Highway 550 had not been built.

As for the new highway's impact on safety, the results are more mixed. Few people would argue that the widening of road from two lanes to four had an enormous positive impact, but the new highway has attracted much more traffic, and so the number of deaths on the road has remained stubbornly high. A June 10, 2017, story by Thom Cole in the Santa Fe New Mexican stated the fatality rate on the road has been among the state's highest since the highway was completed in 2001.

The story also cited figures indicating that from 2013 to 2015, U.S. Highway 550 was second only to Interstate 40 — which sees roughly twice as much traffic — in its number of motorist and passenger fatalities per road mile. That led Cole to characterize 550 as "arguably the state's deadliest major highway."

A major contributor to that carnage is the road's lack of a protective barrier in its 6-foot-wide center median — a feature that was omitted from the design because of cost constraints. Sandel and Johnson both said the addition of such a barrier was considered desirable but economically unfeasible for a project that already carried a price tag of more than $300 million.

Some say the behavior of those who use the highway has more to do with its number of fatalities than its lack of a median barrier. Sandel and Taylor pointed to the number of crashes on the road in which alcohol was a factor, while others point to people who text while driving or exceed the speed limit, or those who simply are lulled to sleep behind the wheel by the highway's long, lonely, straight stretches and serene landscapes.

Johnson acknowledged the road's high number of fatalities, but he said he believes the amount of traffic the highway now carries far exceeds its pre-2001 levels — perhaps by as much as four times. He believes focusing on the road's flaws now while ignoring how bad it used to be misses the point — that the road is inarguably safer than it used to be.

"It has to have done what we set out to do," he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.