Construction Flaws Blamed for U.S. 550 Woes in NM

Sat October 16, 2004 - West Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

SANTA FE (AP) Design and construction flaws apparently caused heaving and cracking on newly widened U.S. 550, according to the New Mexico Department of Transportation and an audit released by the state Legislative Finance Committee.

The audit also criticized state highway managers for not moving fast enough to address the problems and concluded that the economic expansion predicted to follow the road reconstruction has not materialized.

The administration of then-Gov. Gary Johnson defended spending $323 million to widen the highway from two to four lanes between Bernalillo and Bloomfield for safety reasons and to enhance economic development in the Four Corners areas.

Traffic data for the first two years since the road was completed in 2001 isn’t sufficient to determine whether safety has improved, the audit said.

Auditors found that growth in areas of Sandoval and San Juan counties served by the road has continued at a steady pace but can’t be directly attributed to the widened highway.

Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught told an LFC subcommittee that it’s too early to tell the economic benefits of the project.

As for repairs, Faught said her agency will file a claim by Nov. 21 with Mesa PDC, the private contractor that developed and oversaw construction of the 118-mile corridor in northwestern New Mexico. Mesa was created by Koch Industries, which was the sole bidder for the project in 1997.

Nov. 21 is the deadline by which the state can invoke a three-year professional services warranty alleging design and construction problems. The warranty is supposed to last 20 years but could expire sooner if repairs exceed a liability cap of $114 million.

Faught told lawmakers that geotechnical testing supports her agency’s position that design or construction flaws are causing the problems.

“We just don’t want to draw down on our performance warranty,” she said.

The audit states that problems appear to stem from lime added during construction to stabilize the base for the pavement.

The audit also states that the department’s warranty engineer is monitoring the program closely but that “concerns which he brought to the attention of management should have been dealt with more timely.”

Faught said her administration needed time to document the cause of the problems and had not dragged its feet.

Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, urged Koch officials to make “a good faith effort” to settle the claims so the state doesn’t have to go to the expense of a court action.