(Photo: Courtesy/Fort Stanton Cave Study Project)
Feb.11.2019

Legislation aimed at authorizing $15 million to rebuild U.S. 380 in a section from U.S. 70 through the Lincoln Historic District was heard by the House Transportation and Public Works Committee last week, but passed without a recommendation to the appropriations committee.

Truckers, business owners and ranchers have lobbied for the past few years to reopen a portion of U.S. 380 from Hondo to Carrizozo in Lincoln County to semi-truck traffic in excess of 65-feet in length, contending that the ban interferes with deliveries and the movement of livestock, and that when trucks are ticketed for using the more direct route, the penalty adds to the expense of doing businesses.

Currently, commercial vehicles in excess of 65 feet are allowed on that stretch of road if they apply for and receive a permit stating that they are for local use only.

But many residents of the historic site contend the larger truck traffic is dangerous and potentially could damage old structures in the community, archaeological sites and water and cave resources.

With the backing of the Lincoln County Commission, the New Mexico Department of Transportation (DOT) studied the route and engineers agreed its frequent and severe curves present a risk to the large trucks. Engineers with the department concluded only a re-buildling of the highway in that section would resolve the problem for use by larger trucks.

House Bill 223 was introduced State Reps. Candy Spence Ezzell of District 58 from Artesia, Greg Nibert of Roswell from District 59, Phelps Anderson of Roswell from District 66 and Gail Armstrong of Magdelena, representing District 49. All four are Republicans.

One of the structures drew visitors during the annual Old Lincoln Days celebration.
One of the structures drew visitors during the annual Old Lincoln Days celebration. (Photo: Dianne L. Stallings/Ruidoso News)

The bill would appropriate $15 million from the general fund to the DOT to plan, design, and construct the rebuild to allow freight shipping trucks over 65 feet to travel on U.S. Highway 380 between Carrizozo and Hondo. The appropriation would be a non-recurring expense to the general fund. Any unexpended or unencumbered balance remaining at the end of fiscal year 2025 would revert to the general fund.

More: Truck length ban must be maintained in Lincoln for safety

Legislative Counsel analysis

The analysis of the bill by the Legislative Counsel noted that the DOT has not indicated the sum would be sufficient to accomplish the goals and pointed out the Lincoln Historic District was listed as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1960, and subsequently listed to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

The state now maintains a historic site district there. Allowing shipping trucks in excess of 65 feet to travel between Carrizozo and Hondo, which runs directly through the Lincoln Historic District, “would have the potential to impact the physical, audible, visual or atmospheric elements of the site and possibly diminish the aesthetic value of the district,” the counsel wrote.

The Prehistoric and Historic Sites Preservation Sites Act would require the DOT to consult with the State Historic Preservation Officer to first identify other more prudent and feasible alternatives before contemplating the restructuring or reconstructing of the highway.

Balancing competing interests

Author and historian Lynda Sanchez, who also is outreach spokesman for the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project, notified legislators about her concerns surrounding the legislation.

“There are so many unknowns in terms of where there might be caves or other passages and cultural resources in the general area of the Bonito River in or near Government Spring,” she said.

“This bill calls for major highway construction, curve straightening to allow for more and longer truck traffic. This bill is basically one that will allow a few to push their agenda through this committee. A handful of individuals and a couple of merchants contend that this road is a hazard and they want to push the DOT toward spending $15 million of taxpayer dollars, your money, to allow for this ‘improvement.’  They argue that by taking the longer route they have to spend more on gas, about $80 per trip, and it is ‘inconvenient.’”

The route-rebuild advocates may not understand that the section of U.S. 380 is known as the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway, she said.

It is visited by thousands of tourists who drive into the county every year,” Sanchez said. “Tourism dollars for New Mexico and Lincoln County mean a lot more to the region than a few truckers and their being inconvenienced.

“Additionally, Lincoln State Historic Site with its fragile adobe structures and unique history is also known nationally as a National Historic Landmark. Very few places get that designation. A large portion of the highway goes through the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Area. At one time, (the late U.S. Senator) Pete Domenici had proposed that this area become an underground wilderness. I am uncertain as to what happened to this proposal, but once again, it points to a fragile region both topside and beneath the surface.”

Some other critics of the bill contend more and heavier trucks would negatively impact the Rio Bonito Valley, disrupting its rural character.

Sanchez contented there are other reasons to oppose the legislation.

  • Many archaeological resources and petroglyphs exist in this same section.
  • A major source of water for the Bonito River, Government Spring, is about 8 to 10 feet beneath the surface. Heavy equipment and excavating for highway construction could endanger this valuable source of water for not only the river but for a very significant riparian area in that vicinity. Heavier trucks might cause collapse resulting in reduced spring flow, water backup in Snowy River (cave calcite formation) North, and a dangerous sinkhole in the highway.
  • There are possibly other cave passages in this same area. 
  • $15 million could be spent on other worthy projects.

“We need to think about preventing a possible problem, not trying to solve a problem after it occurs because by then it could be too late,” Sanchez said.

Dianne Stalling can be reached at at dstallings@ruidosonews.com.