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Susana Martinez, center, along with representatives of the New Mexico Department of Transportation, area lawmakers, and other officials break ground Wednesday afternoon on the U.S. 82 expansion project that will widen the highway between Artesia and Lovington. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

“It’s been a long time coming.”

That’s been most Artesians’ reaction to the upcoming reconstruction of U.S. 82 between Artesia and Lovington.

Gov. Susana Martinez, New Mexico Department of Transportation Cabinet Secretary Tom Church, and other area lawmakers and officials met along a stretch of the highway just east of the HollyFrontier Training Center Wednesday afternoon to break ground on the $58 million project, a steady line of semis and oil and gas company pickups streaming past in the background.

“This highway has a tremendous amount of truck traffic,” Martinez noted, stating the reconstruction would make the road safer and help that traffic move more efficiently, “improving public safety and creating a stronger foundation of economic growth in this area, which is extremely important to the entire state.”

According to the NMDOT, the two-year project, which is tentatively slated for a winter 2019 completion, will include mill and overlay of the existing roadway, widening of driving lanes and shoulders, and new turning lanes at key intersections.

That’s welcome news to Artesia’s motorists – particularly those who frequent the stretch of highway, such as oil and gas workers and private citizens traveling to and from Lubbock, Texas, for medical care – despite the fact the renovation doesn’t go quite as far as many had hoped.

“I’m disappointed it’s not going to be four lanes,” said Evolyn Terpening, a local resident who essentially spearheaded the crusade for improvement of the busy stretch of highway. “But passing lanes are better than nothing, and later, if they find the oil business is coming back strong, they might consider making it four lanes somewhere down the line.”

Artesians have long wished for a four-lane highway between Artesia and Lovington due to the significant amount of oilfield traffic that traverses that path on a near-constant basis each day. Motorists complain it can be next to impossible to pass the large trucks behind which lines tend to form due to steady oncoming traffic and that trucks and company vehicles turning onto and off the two-lane highway create hazardous situations.

But it was in 2008 that Terpening made improvement of the highway her personal mission. In March of that year, her longtime friend, Louise Stuart, was tragically killed when a semi failed to brake upon approaching a line of cars stopped in a construction zone on the highway, slamming into the back of Stuart’s vehicle.

“I just decided we couldn’t be having accidents like that, and that road was just too, too dangerous to be on,” Terpening said.

Terpening and Artesia Mayor Phil Burch made their initial pitch to the NMDOT at a meeting in Ruidoso, and the mayor also carried her message to a second meeting in Hobbs. They made little headway, Terpening said.

Rather than give up, she went the proactive route, creating forms that could be used to tally large truck and oil company traffic during a trip to Lovington and back, and enlisting family, friends and other supporters to fill them out each time they made the trek.

“We kept records from here to Loco Hills and from Loco Hills to Lovington, and then I kept those records, made copies, and sent them in to the highway department,” Terpening said.

She said initially, the efforts still seemed in vain until State Rep. Cathrynn Brown of Carlsbad and U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce of Hobbs began to take up the cause. Terpening expressed appreciation for lawmakers’ help in bringing broader attention to the matter.

“I did an awful lot of work on that for years,” she said. “Now, finally, I’m 89 years old and it’s going to come to pass.”

Church noted funding was an issue when initially considering the project but that options were found. Approximately $20 million in funds will come from the state, with the federal government making up the difference.

“We took an absolutely no-budget, non-funded project to a project we’re breaking ground on today, and it’s remarkable we can do that,” Church said.

Public safety and accidents like the one that claimed the life of Stuart finally convinced the state action had to be taken.

“In 2014, we had 47 (traffic) deaths in Eddy and Lea counties,” Church said. “It was about that time that the governor came to me and said, ‘Get ‘er done.’

“It is important. It’ll save lives. We’ve seen a major decrease last year; we had about 18 deaths in Eddy and Lea counties, a substantial reduction from 2014, and this project will help reduce that even further.”

“Projects like this are a great example of what can be accomplished when people actually work together to make our roads safer for our families and make our state more competitive for jobs,” said Martinez. “This is something New Mexico can be very proud of. We’re putting people to work, and we’re using our dollars wisely.”

Area officials were also glad to be a part of the project groundbreaking, having long recognized the need for improvements to the highway.

“This is one of the highest-revenue-producing roads in New Mexico,” said Brown. “It’s really critical for not just the local area but the state.

“I’m very pleased that the project’s finally happening, and it’s certainly been a dangerous stretch of road for too many years. I hope it’ll be done safely and quickly, and we can get back to giving both travelers and truck drivers a safe passage.”

Eddy County Commissioner Larry Wood of Artesia was also pleased with the increased safety implications of the project, not only as a private motorist but as a bus driver for the Artesia Public Schools.

“I think it’s a welcome project,” Wood said. “I think they saw the safety part as something that needed to be taken care of, and I’m glad to see it get started.

“I drive activity buses for the schools, and traveling back and forth to Lovington, we’ve run into some close calls because of the condition of the road and the way people drive on it. So widening that road and making it smoother is also going to help with transporting our kids back and forth to ballgames safely.”

The Daily Press will follow up Friday with additional information from the NMDOT regarding what drivers can expect on the portion of highway during the construction period.