AZTEC — A project designed to create more turning room at a major intersection here that has been tying commuters, school buses and lunch traffic in knots every week day will take longer than expected, officials say.

Workers digging up the pavement have found a number of surprises underneath the intersection of Light Plant Road and Aztec Boulevard, which is slowing progress, according to the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

The $1.5 million project is designed to open up the busy intersection that primarily handles traffic on N.M. 516 heading west to Farmington and east into downtown Aztec. With colder weather quickly approaching, the roadwork that has snarled traffic since early September will have to wait until spring for final paving and light-signal installation.

Paul Brasher, engineer for the transportation department's District 5 office, confirmed the delay.

"While the contractor's been making pretty good progress, underground utilities that were not mapped have slowed us down," Brasher said. "What we've found underground is complicated and city records for this project are scant. We're finding that this intersection has everything."

Among the surprises are a paved-over manhole on a sewer line 12 feet underground that Brasher said caused unexpected redesign work, slowing progress down to a crawl.

"It's made it difficult," Brasher said. "The place we find ourselves in today is that we will need to suspend the work till spring, sometime around the second week of March, before final paving and traffic-signal work can be attempted."

Traffic is slowed and -- during morning, noon and evening peak commute times -- halted. Brasher said that is "a huge concern," and motorists can expect all four lanes to open up just before the Thanksgiving holiday when road work will be suspended for the winter.

Also complicating reconstruction efforts is the state's limited room in which to expand turning space for motorists, Brasher said.

Traffic moves through the intersection of North Light Plant Road and Aztec Boulevard in Aztec on Monday.
Traffic moves through the intersection of North Light Plant Road and Aztec Boulevard in Aztec on Monday. (Jon Austria The Daily Times)

"The right-of-way, which is right behind existing sidewalks, is extremely limited," he said. "We also have (an underground) acequia (irrigation ditch) along the south side of the intersection and junction boxes (controlling the acequia) on two corners that are in the way since we're expanding."

During construction, concerns have arisen over pedestrian safety and traffic flow, especially school buses. The latter prompted the contractor to pay for police help to direct traffic to ensure school buses can ferry students to class on time, Brasher said.

"We're trying to make the turns a little easier, safer, which has been the goal from the outset," he said. "But there is just not a suitable detour route, or any decent bypass around the construction area. We're committed to doing this as quickly and safely as possible. We've had a number of people expressing their concern, but we're working as fast as we can."

Information detailing the project could not be found on the state transportation department's website. For information on state road projects, call 1-800-432-4269.

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.