Paving the way

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks
Walter Nowelll of the New Mexico Department of Transportation performs a test on a batch of asphalt to determine its density.

By Tonya Fennell: CNJ staff writer

Walter Nowell shares many similarities with the asphalt he tests daily. His physical build is compact and strong and his demeanor is unyielding and tough.

Nowell, a civil engineer with the New Mexico Department of Transportation, is working on the N.M. 467 railroad overpass project.

Construction of the 467 overpass was part of an agreement between the city, county and Burlington Northern Santa Fe when the Wheaton Street railroad crossing was closed in 2003 to facilitate the railroad expansion.

The $3.6 million project, which began in June, involves the installation of a three-span bridge, sidewalks, curb, gutters and pavement markings, according to a NMDOT news release.

Nowell is on site to assure the quality of the asphalt being used is in compliance with state safety standards.

“We (NMDOT civil engineers) are here for quality assurance,” NMDOT worker Bill Fulkrod said. “The type of material going into the road is determined by the weight and amount of traffic.”

Fulkrod has been employed with NMDOT for eight years.

The railroad overpass will serve approximately 1,200 southwest Curry County residents who reside in the Wheat Ridge, Double A, South Valley and Buchanan subdivisions. Currently these residents cannot enter Clovis without crossing a railroad track.

County officials have estimated the project will take a year depending on weather. But, according to Fulkrod, the project is slightly ahead of schedule.

Nowell’s office, which he refers to as “the lab,” is a portable trailer equipped with the tools of his trade — computers, manuals and scales. The native New Mexican operates these tools with steady, weathered hands. Nowell said he spends his days measuring, weighing and cooking asphalt to determine its appropriateness for the project. He spends between six and 20 hours a day analyzing the oil, rock, clay and sand mix, which is commonly known as asphalt.

“It (hours) depends on what I’m doing on any particular day,” Nowell said.

Although nicknamed “Bear” by his co-workers, Nowell’s soft side was evident as he proudly displayed a picture of his dog.

“This is General,” Nowell said with a grin. “He’s my boss.” Besides his beloved pooch, Nowell said his wife also accompanies him when his job requires him to be away from his hometown of Jal.

“I like what I do,” Nowell said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t do it.”