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Navajos bless road in preparation for construction

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TOHATCHI, N.M. (AP) - Walking north with state and Navajo leaders, Paul Long Sr. sang a traveling song and blessed U.S. 491 with cornmeal and the shovels with yellow corn.

He made four additional stops along the highway the week of May 26 as part of a groundbreaking ceremony to widen the road to four lanes.

''Prayers are to do away with the mishaps, whatever happened on this road,'' said Tohatchi Chapter president Larson Manuelito. ''Use the corn pollen to go in the Hozhooni way, the harmonious way, the good way.''

The highway 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 were head-on collisions; a fifth involved commercial trucks.

State Department of Transportation crews began repaving about 30 miles of the southern part of the road May 5. The larger project to widen the road from Tohatchi to Shiprock will take more than a year to complete, said department spokesman Megan Arredondo.

The improvement plan also includes building six new bridges and rebuilding existing bridges. Two bridges have been built, but can't be used because the rest of the project isn't done.

State DOT and Navajo officials reached a compromise late last year over disputes over taxation, easement rights and how much the tribe would pay toward the work on U.S. 491.

State Sen. John Pinto, who spent 15 years advocating for the widening of the road, was jubilant at the groundbreaking.

''After those years, the effort is finally paying off,'' he said.

The community of Sanostee also celebrated the groundbreaking for construction with a ceremony of its own.

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