Residents air concerns on bridge project
Representatives of the New Mexico Department of Transportation and their contractors on the upcoming Highway 90 bridge project gathered Tuesday evening to answer public concerns on the safety of residents and business revenues of Silver City.
The bridge project is slated to start next week. The bridge itself will be closed to traffic beginning in mid-to-late March for the duration of the nearly yearlong project, according to the DOT. Project Manager Brian Torres said the reconstruction should take 325 calendar days. There is a 210-day contractual limit to how long the bridge can be closed.
The plan currently will direct incoming Silver City traffic to the Truck By Pass road to Highway 180. This detour would bypass Silver City’s Historic Downtown, which worries both downtown business owners and residents of town-managed streets near downtown, which could potentially be used as detours of the highway closure.
Silver City Mayor Pro-tem Cynthia Bettison said Cooper Street, in particular, will seem attractive to local drivers coming from the direction of the bridge, leading to increased traffic down the residential street.
“This is going to be used,” she said. “You can’t stop that. I would encourage you to put a temporary stoplight there or our law enforcement will spend an inordinate amount of time in that area.”
Several residents of the area surrounding Cooper Street voiced concerns over several child care and education institutions located there and whether the closure would endanger those children.
Similar concerns were voiced over the safety of the intersections of the bypass at either end, on Highways 90 and 180.
The consensus from the gathered public was that increased signage was needed to control the traffic flow.
DOT Assistant District Engineer Filiberto Castorena said that such signage was up to the Town of Silver City to install. “We can’t control who is going to use the other roads,” he said. “All we can do is discourage them and instruct them to use the bypass we have recommended.”
“The only thing that will slow traffic down is law enforcement,” Torres said. “You can put as many signs up as you want, but it is law enforcement that will keep people from driving unsafely.”
To this point, Castorena said that the DOT has provisions to hire off-duty law enforcement officers from Silver City Police Department and Grant County Sheriff’s Office to aid traffic control if it becomes an issue. This is to help local government by not losing their on-duty coverage.
Highway 90 is a direct route downtown via its connection to Broadway Street, which intersects downtown’s Bullard Street. Businesses there are concerned that without additional signage on the assigned bypass, their businesses will be hurt.
“We’re thankful for the bridge improvement,” said Carol Czujko, new owner of the soon-to-be opened Soul River Studio on Bullard Street, after Torres recommended people focus on the positives. “But, I think staying in business is pretty basic.”
Cissy McAndrew, director of the Southwest New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce, recommended that distinct signage directing traffic to the Historic Downtown should be installed along the bypass so as to avoid damage to business. She even offered to collaborate with the DOT on where and how to install the signs to be most effective.
Castorena said that, actually, he believes the DOT can help install such signage throughout the duration of the project.
After a general consensus of concern for downtown business from the audience, Castorena added that if a business is affected, they should contact one of the project managers to file a complaint so the issue can be resolved if the DOT is able.
Czujko also used to work for a project management software company. She said that a foreseen impact on business should be dealt with before the project breaks down rather than when there is already a problem. “This is philosophy of ‘we’ll wait until disaster and then fix it.’”
One way the DOT will allegedly head off problems with reaching downtown proactively is through their Information Technology department, which will update services like Google Maps and similar electronic mapping technologies to how best to reach destinations considering the closure and bypass.
Lifelong Cooper Street resident Fred Hernandez was concerned about the safety of the roads as well, especially semi-trucks using Cooper Street as a detour to get around the assigned bypass.
“Not all the trucks are going to use the bypass,” he said. “It’s way out of their way. None of these roads are made for that kind of traffic.” Hernandez told a story of a recent incident in which a semi — before the bridge was even closed — attempting to use Snake Hill (Market Street) and bottoming out. The truck was allegedly stuck there for more than three hours.
Hernandez wasn’t alone in his concern for the upkeep of the roads. New Mexico State Police Sgt. Bill Thornack suggested both contacting Freeport-McMoRan to make sure their trucks don’t use in-town roads and weight limit signs be placed on roads like Market Street “so that law enforcement can do something about it.”
Castorena said again that it was up to the city to put signage on city streets.
Increased traffic during Silver City’s biggest summer events — the Silver City Blues and Bikes Festival and the Tour of the Gila — was met with a similar response.
“We don’t really have a good answer for that,” Castorena said. “We will just have to work together to manage the traffic as best we can when that happens. That’s just the way it is.” He indicated that the state has no jurisdiction on town streets.
Some of the crowd’s frustration stemmed from having to repeat the same concerns after two years of meetings over the bridge project. Local artist and business owner Diana Ingalls Leyba asked if the Tuesday meeting was being recorded, as none of the DOT representatives were taking notes. Castorena said that there was no official record until a formal complaint was filed, so he recommended that is how people deliver their complaints in the future.
The DOT contractors Interstate Highway Construction provided plans for the new bridge, which will include a screened pedestrian walkway outside the highway’s wider lanes and shoulders.
General construction beneath the bridge will begin as soon as a specialty drill is delivered all the way from Germany.
Nancy Cliff asked if the San Vicente trailhead located beneath the bridge will be give a detour like the roads are. Torres said it most likely would not, but that it would be returned to “nearly the same state” upon the project’s completion.
For more information on the project once the construction has begun, call DOT Project Manager Brian Torres at 575-544-6561 or email Brian.Torres@state.nm.us.