Navajo Nation to Contribute $8M for Widening of U.S. 491

Thu January 24, 2008 - West Edition
Felicia Fonseca - ASSOCIATED PRESS



ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) The Navajo Nation is offering to contribute $8 million to the widening of U.S. 491 — an infamous stretch of highway known for fatal crashes — but the tribe said it won’t waive the tax on the project as the state had suggested.

Four years ago, the state appropriated $125 million to improve part of the highway that connects Gallup to the reservation community of Shiprock. Disputes between state transportation officials and the tribe stalled the project and the work is now estimated at $260 million.

Navajo Vice President Ben Shelly and state Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught met Nov. 2 in Santa Fe to discuss the impasse, the tribe’s contribution to the project and any legal obstacles that might stand in the way of its completion.

Shelly said he’s confident the state will agree that the tribe has met expectations.

“This is an unprecedented contribution to such a project, and it is my hope that the state has no lingering doubts about the Navajo Nation’s commitment,” Shelly said in a letter to Faught.

A spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, S.U. Mahesh, said the department is encouraged by the tribe’s proposal.

“We are hopeful we can come to a quick resolution on this matter so we can move forward with the reconstruction of U.S. 491 to make it a safer highway for the traveling public, especially for those Navajo residents who use it everyday,” Mahesh said.

U.S. 491, a two-lane stretch once known as U.S. 666, had 38 fatalities and more than 200 crashes with injuries between 1999 and 2002 — an accident rate 2.5 times higher than the state average, according to a state report. Many accidents were head-on collisions, and one-fifth of them involved commercial trucks.

The 14-phase improvement plan includes building six new bridges, rebuilding existing bridges and expanding the highway to four lanes. Two bridges have been built, but can’t be used because the rest of the project isn’t done.

Faught has said her department has about $170 million in uncommitted construction funds that will be earmarked in the next month, but she said none will go to U.S. 491 unless the tribe’s contribution is settled.

The state had asked the tribe to waive its 4 percent sales tax on the project or contribute the equivalent amount in labor and materials.

But Navajo officials contend they should be able to contribute as they choose.

“It would be unfortunate in the extreme for the citizens of both New Mexico and the Navajo Nation — who, in many cases, are one and the same — if NMDOT were to decline to build the road by arguing that its sought-after concessions were more important than building the road and saving lives,” Shelly said.

The tribe said it agreed in August to make a $2 million in-kind contribution, the majority of which will be a waiver of royalties for nonaggregate fill materials, such as soil. But the tribe won’t waive royalties for all construction materials or waive its sales tax as requested in the state’s proposal, tribal officials said.

“Our position is that we have taxing authority on those lands, and people have to abide by our laws,” said John Rutherford, assistant Navajo attorney general for natural resources.

Tribal officials said they have spent years on the engineering, right of way and environmental work necessary to clear the way for the 40-mi. (64 km) stretch to be rebuilt, which also adds to their in-kind contribution to the project.

The tribe’s proposal also includes an agreement leaving open whether disputes would be resolved in tribal or state courts and a clause that documents regarding the terms and conditions would not create a consensual relationship between the state and the tribe.

Rutherford said the tribe expects to hear back from the state on its proposal within a week.

“If it’s a positive response, then the nation will undertake the legislative acts that we need to do on our end,” he said.