Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were plans for three major highway projects between Santa Fe and Los Alamos: a bypass, or relief route, around Santa Fe’s west side; the widening of N.M. 502 between Los Alamos and the road to Santa Clara Pueblo; and a brand-new road connecting New Mexico’s capital and the city on the Hill.
The first two plans became reality in the 1990s.
But the third project, the shorter route to Los Alamos, quietly fizzled and was soon forgotten.
In early August, Los Alamos National Laboratory held a conference for hundreds of representatives of construction companies from around the U.S. to talk up plans for $5 billion in construction over the next five years and more than $10 billion over the next decade. Much of this work would help facilitate the lab’s new mission to ramp up production of plutonium “pits” — the grapefruit-size triggers for nuclear warheads.
In addition to new buildings at the national lab, there would be a need for new infrastructure in the community, such as housing projects and a new highway more directly linking Los Alamos and Santa Fe.
It’s not clear why a project to build such a roadway — already designated by the state as N.M. 594 — stalled in the 1990s. But lab officials say the need for it has grown.
“When this road was previously discussed in 1988 to 1990, about 60 percent of our employees lived in Los Alamos County,” Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Thom Mason said in an interview Friday. “Now about 60 percent live off the Hill.
“Part of the reason for that is because of fairly limited space to build new housing in Los Alamos,” he said. “That’s putting stress on the transportation system.
“There’s also the wildfire threat,” Mason added, recalling the 2011 Las Conchas Fire, which burned more than 150,000 acres and forced an evacuation of Los Alamos. “The bottleneck caused by having only one way out of Los Alamos probably is worth reconsidering.”
Pete Sheehey, vice chairman of the Los Alamos County Council, said last week the lab has not yet approached the local government about a future highway or other new construction projects. But, Sheehey said, given the expansion in employment at the lab, “We’re going to have to do something about all that additional traffic.”
By the end of 2020, the lab will have added at least 1,500 new positions to its workforce — and possibly 2,000 — in a three-year period. According to its website, the lab now has 12,752 workers.
Mason said the lab plans to make a presentation to the Los Alamos County Council in the next two or three weeks about expansion plans and the new road. Officials would be happy to do the same with other nearby communities, he said.
Commuters hoping for a faster drive to Los Alamos shouldn’t start celebrating just yet, however.
The shortcut, which would be administered by the state Department of Transportation, could take a decade to complete after it’s started, and a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday the project is not currently in the cards.
“There are no plans to resurrect that project, not something the state is considering at present,” Tripp Stelnicki said in an email.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation made a similar statement Friday.
On the federal level, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said the senator was looking into the highway plans. “Sen. Udall will be seeking a full understanding of what the new proposal will mean for LANL, the community and the surrounding environment,” he said.
A route ‘for the privileged’?
Not everyone is excited about the prospect of a new road to the Hill, which would require a new span over the Rio Grande.
“It would be difficult to imagine a more backward transport investment than this highway and bridge,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based organization that advocates for nuclear disarmament and environmental protection.
“Los Alamos has more millionaires per capita than almost any town in America,” Mello said. “A special highway for the privileged few? Give me a break. LANL doesn’t need more employees, but if it did, carpools and buses are the answer, not happy motoring on a new ‘plutonium highway.’ Fostering more automobile travel in an age of climate collapse is indicative of just how Neanderthal and selfish LANL’s thinking really is, once the public relations veneer is scrubbed off.”
Mason said that in addition to those commuting between Santa Fe and Los Alamos, the sizable number of lab employees who live in Albuquerque also would benefit from a new highway.
Building the long-discussed road, he said, also could be a big opportunity for economic development in the region and would aid in “technology transfer” — taking technology developed at the lab to new private startup businesses.
This, he said, would help diversify the area’s economy.
Mello scoffed at the idea.
“What is attractive to technology companies and entrepreneurs is not faster access to a nuclear weapons research and production center but rather the region’s natural and cultural amenities,” he said. “How those amenities are going to be enhanced by more plutonium pit manufacturing and more nuclear waste is a question that needs to be answered by people with fewer conflicts of interest than the contractors running LANL.”
The road not taken
The previous push by local, state and federal governments to build the new road sprang up during the period when the U.S. Department of Energy was preparing to open the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, which would become the repository for low-level nuclear waste from weapons work at Los Alamos.
In the late ’80s, the Federal Highway Administration and what was then called the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department commissioned the H.W. Lochner engineering firm to perform an environmental study for the proposed Los Alamos shortcut.
According to Lochner’s environmental impact statement, completed in September 1990, the idea for a road connecting Santa Fe to Pajarito Plateau, where the lab was built in the 1940s, had been kicked around for nearly a century.
In the late 1800s, an Oregon lumberman named Harry Buckman built the first such road for his timber-cutting operation. This road stretched from the town of Buckman, on the east side of the Rio Grande, to Harry Buckman’s sawmills on the other side of the river and on top of Pajarito Plateau.
Not long after the turn of the century, the timber operation had stripped the area of its ponderosa pines, and Buckman became a ghost town.
The road and the bridge Harry Buckman constructed were still used for several years, but virtually no trace of them is visible today.
“In 1949, the New Mexico State Legislature created the County of Los Alamos,” the Lochner study said. “In this same year, the Los Alamos and Santa Fe boards of County Commissioners submitted concurrent resolutions to the New Mexico State Highway Department requesting a study of the feasibility of constructing a shorter route between the two areas.”
The two county commissions said the road was necessary because of “the existing poor roadway conditions, the increasing traffic congestion, and the length of the existing route.”
The next year, the transportation officer for the Atomic Energy Commission and the Army district engineer of the 4th Army Commission in Los Alamos made a similar request to the U.S. Department of Defense. Along with citing the same traffic concerns of the two county commissions, the Army engineer “identified the need for a second primary emergency escape route out of Los Alamos, and the need to reduce the potential hazard of transporting hazardous materials by routing shipments away from the populated downtown Santa Fe area.”
In January 1951, Lochner said, the Defense Department completed a study, the Report on a Proposed Alternate Highway from Los Alamos to Santa Fe, that led to the reconstruction and two-lane addition to U.S 84/285 between Santa Fe and Pojoaque — but not a second route to Los Alamos.
Fast-forward to 1970: As traffic on N.M. 502 increased, the city of Santa Fe and the counties of Santa Fe and Los Alamos created a committee to study the need for — and the feasibility of — a shorter route.
The Los Alamos Highway Study Committee presented a report of its findings to then-Gov. Bruce King and the state’s congressional delegation in November 1971. It called for the construction of a new route north of White Rock, across Old Buckman Road and into Santa Fe near the city’s northwest boundary.
The lost highway
The proposed Los Alamos shortcut, according to the Lochner study, was part of the state Highway Department’s 1990-96 Six Year Plan, which called for a “four-lane divided highway on a new location with limited access.”
The draft environmental impact statement by Lochner looked at four possible alignments for the road, ranging in length from 19.2 to 22.3 miles of new construction between what is now N.M. 599 west of Santa Fe and N.M. 4 near Los Alamos. The 1990 cost estimates varied from $150.8 million to $205.5 million. The road would require a new bridge over the Rio Grande.
Mello pointed out that two of the proposed routes called for bridges over the Rio Grande that would be higher than Rio Grande Gorge Bridge north of Taos.
“This would be one of the highest bridges in the U.S., not just in the state,” he said.
A bridge on the Montoso Peak alternate route would be 1,020 feet above the Rio Grande, while the Chino Mesa route bridge would be 810 feet above the river.
The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, in comparison, is 656 feet high.
As recently as 2010, the proposed highway, named N.M. 594, was on the state Department of Transportation’s list, described as a route “from Junction NM 599 [The Santa Fe Relief Route] northwesterly to Junction NM 4 [near White Rock].”
Lochner estimated it would take seven to 10 years to build the road after approval of an environmental impact statement for the project.
According to the firm’s study, “There will be no adverse long-term air, noise, water quality, wetland, farmland, or floodplain impacts” along any of the proposed routes. “There would be no relocation of residences, businesses, farms, or public and institutional facilities.”