A project to create an alternative route to the southern end of Richards Avenue and to better serve as an Interstate 25 frontage road is set to begin this summer after years of planning, although some residents are concerned it won’t be enough to alleviate future traffic congestion in the Santa Fe Community College District.
The Northeast and Southeast Connector Roads Project, with a pricetag north of $15 million, has been in the works for more than 20 years. Santa Fe County and the Metropolitan Planning Organization have found the money, acquired the right of way for construction and are ready to break ground. The 3.8-mile project is expected to address the increase in drivers as new homes are built throughout the area.
“Right now, traffic is pretty heavy at the beginning and end of the day, especially with the community college there,” says District 5 Santa Fe County Commissioner Hank Hughes. “Then this is the growth area for the county, so there’s new housing going in and that’s going to increase traffic.”
The timeline for the bidding process has been slightly delayed, though. The county originally planned to award contracts by late June. Now, Ivan Trujillo, engineer services manager with the Santa Fe County Public Works Department, says an award is expected in July. The county and MPO aim to hire a single contractor for all the construction work, but the rising cost of building materials nationwide has left some worries.
“One of our concerns that we have now is that construction prices are really coming in high and they get higher by the month,” Trujillo tells SFR. “So we want to make sure that our project budget will sustain any bids that we receive and that we’ll have an opportunity to award.”
The county is putting up $12.9 million for the project, while the state supplies the remaining $2.3 million. According to data from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, the price of materials for highways and streets has increased 21% since last year.
The New Mexico Department of Transportation is also noticing the hike.
“We have seen increased costs across the board with supply chain issues, which seem to be taking care of themselves now,” says Jim Murray, a spokesman for the transportation department. “In general, everything is getting more expensive.”
The Northeast Connector will extend Rabbit Road to the intersection of Richards Avenue at Dinosaur Trail. The Southeast Connector, meanwhile, will start at Rabbit Road and travel south on the east side of Santa Fe Community College. It will then connect to Richards Avenue along the existing Spur Trail, via the new Avenida del Sur extension. The Spur Trail parking area will also be relocated.
The goal remains to finish both connectors by fall 2023. The roadway will feature multi-use trails, bike lanes, six new intersections, lighting and a drainage system. The county is also installing 3,600 feet of water line—between College Drive and the new Avenida del Sur connection—so development can happen around the new transit option.
During a late-April public meeting, and since then, area residents have expressed some concern that the two-lane road to direct traffic away from Richards Avenue won’t get the job done. Rancho Viejo South Community Association President Marcia Kaplan, who has worked in market research and urban planning, has a problem with the design.
“The basic problem is that it is not designed for the level of residential development that there will be in the area in about five years, let alone the forecast for 2040,” she says. “It’s just not true and they’ve provided inaccurate data.”
At least four housing developments are in the works for the Community College District. A 2017 report by Bohannan Huston, numbers from which were used to compile the county’s traffic analysis study, shows there are 476 existing housing units and projects there will be 2,527 by the year 2040. But it’s been five years since the study was done and Kaplan believes those figures are inaccurate and outdated, telling SFR there are close to 2,000 units already in the district.
“There are over 1,300 housing units that were not accounted for,” she says. “The house I live in that was built in 2006, according to the county, doesn’t exist.”
Area resident Randy Chitto, who regularly walks the Spur Trail with his dogs, says he expects to see increased traffic in the future, which he is not particularly excited about. But he recognizes that more cars on the road and expanded infrastructure is part of community growth.
“We’re afraid that it’s going to become Airport Road or something, in terms of traffic,” Chitto says. “Traffic is not too bad at all right now, but it’s going to get worse. So we do need it, but one of the reasons we live out here is because it’s quiet.”
Others who tuned in for the public meeting also expressed doubt that the roads will be able to handle the future capacity. They’re also worried the two-lane roads will keep commercial businesses from opening up shop and could create gridlock in the event of an emergency, such as an evacuation.
Officials, though, stated residents of the district have emphasized a desire for smaller streets, not multi-lane roadways.
Trujillo says the connectors will serve as the “backbone” to the district’s development and that as the area grows, additional connections can be made. The level of service, he explains, is how the county measures the functionality of each intersection. So while he agrees that the original data might not represent the full scope of the community, he says the two-lane roads should be enough to handle traffic for years to come.
“Service levels are graded A to F,” Trujillo says. “In this case, with even the 2040 forecast, most of our intersections would still be working at a service level A or a high B.”
So even if the projections for traffic data are off by 50 % or greater, Trujillo tells SFR: “We still wouldn’t anticipate it to fail. Even if development occurred at a greater number than what you anticipated, it’d still function really well.”