Dispute between state, Navajo tribe delay road in northwestern

Farmington, New Mexico (AP) 9-07

Disputes between state transportation officials and the Navajo Nation have stalled the widening of U.S. 491, an infamous stretch of highway known for fatal crashes.

Four years ago, the state appropriated $125 million to improve part of the highway that connects Gallup to the reservation community of Shiprock, but state Rep. Ray Begaye, a Democrat who represents the Shiprock area, said tribal officials want concessions the state is unwilling to grant.

“Once the conditions are signed by both, the project is ready to start tomorrow, but this will only happen if the Navajo Nation can cooperate with the state,” Begaye said.

The 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; 20 percent involved commercial trucks.

Begaye said the state asked the tribe for a contribution of materials, such as gravel and sand.

Instead, Navajo officials have imposed a 4 percent tax on initial construction and ongoing maintenance.

“It’s inappropriate and wrong the way the (Navajo) Nation is trying to negotiate this,” Begaye said. “Since this is New Mexico money, we have every obligation to enforce the terms. If the nation doesn’t want it, we can reappropriate it to projects that are ready to go.”

The cost of the project has jumped from the $125 million originally appropriated in 2003 to an estimated $260 million.

“The New Mexico Department of Transportation is ... in an untenable position because the funds that have been programmed for this project are no longer adequate to complete construction of the entire project,” Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught wrote in an August letter Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. “Every dollar the nation charges the NMDOT or its contractors for associated rights of way, construction materials, water or taxes ultimately will result in a smaller portion of the project being constructed.”

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 soon.

The state has asked the tribe to waive the tax on the project or contribute the equivalent amount in labor and materials.

Navajo officials contend the proposed conditions are skewed in favor of the state.

George Arthur, chairman of the Navajo Nation Resources Committee, said the terms submitted by the tribe are fair and are standard in any governmental agreement.

“The way I see it is that supposedly this is a
government-to-government agreement, a sovereign-to-sovereign
discussion,” he said. “The nation has every right to tax
activities of this nature.”

Arthur contended the state would not demand contributions of material in any other location.

“My argument is this is a state highway, this is New Mexico’s road,” he said. “It’s their responsibility.”

Tribal officials said they have spent years on the engineering, right-of-way and environmental work necessary to clear the way for the 40-mile stretch to be rebuilt.

“We need to four-lane that road,” said Navajo Nation Vice President Ben Shelly. “It’s not Navajo’s road. It’s everybody’s road. It’s a safety issue for everyone who drives on that road, Navajos, tourists, truck drivers, business people.”

The 14-phase improvement plan includes building six new bridges, reconstructing 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.

Shelly and tribal transportation director Tom Platero met in September with Faught, and Navajo officials met last week to discuss the impasse and held a conference call with transportation officials. Nothing was decided.

Platero said that for the tribe to comply with state demands, the Navajo Nation Council would have to waive the tax or approve a new agreement with terms to cover the tribal contribution, either of which would take time. Shelly said there’s no agreement the tribe should make concessions.

Faught said she’s not insisting the tribe waive the tax, but “we’re asking for some contribution from them equivalent to that” such as gravel or other material, water or hauling.

Duane “Chili” Yazzie, president of the Navajo Shiprock Chapter, said local people believe the tribe “is putting up unreasonable requirements of the state, making an obstacle in helping the project move forward.”

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I think every time there’s a vehicle crash, especially if there’s a fatality, it just emphasizes the urgency to do the project even more.”

Information from: The Daily Times, www.daily-times.com , Albuquerque Journal, www.abqjournal.com