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Work could start in spring on highway across Navajo Nation

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FARMINGTON, N.M. (AP) - Construction could begin as early as spring to widen the 70-mile corridor of a deadly highway across the Navajo Nation.

The state Department of Transportation and Navajo Nation officials recently reached a compromise over disputes over taxation, easement rights and how much the tribe would pay toward the work on U.S. 491.

''It feels like it's been a thousand years since we started working on this,'' Navajo Nation Vice President Ben Shelly said. ''We're happy with the agreement, and we will deliver on our end.''

The compromise calls for the Navajo to contribute $10 million in cash and in-kind donations to the project.

The state appropriated funds in 2003 to improve the two-lane highway between the Red Valley turnoff and Twin Lakes. The Transportation Department said in December that it would reallocate $100 million to other projects if an agreement was not reached by this month.

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; one-fifth involved commercial trucks.

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The state had objected to the tribe's 4 percent tax on project contractors. Tribal officials said they had the right to tax construction activity, but state officials said that consent to the tax meant submitting to Navajo Nation jurisdiction.

The agreement calls for the state to reimburse contractors for the taxes. In return, the tribe agreed not to use the reimbursement as evidence that New Mexico consented to its taxation authority.

The improvement plan includes building six new bridges, rebuilding 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.

The project's cost has risen since 2003. The $100 million now left for it falls short of the current estimated $260 million cost.

Construction will begin this year on the highway's northern stretch and will continue until the money runs out, said Robert Ortiz, deputy secretary of operations for the Transportation Department.

''There are efforts under way by folks in both camps to find additional funds and allocations. The project really is about making that area much more safe and our engineers are doing everything they can to get as much as possible out of the $100 million.''