Tune Drive? Turn around

Private road to hot springs faces mounting traffic, costs

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If the first thing a tourist is likely to visit in Taos is the Río Grande Gorge Bridge, the second is probably the Manby Hot Springs.

The most direct way between the two is Tune Drive, a private, unpaved road that as of June has a sign posted near the turnoff from U.S. 64 saying as much. The sign directs people to go the long way around to the hot springs through Arroyo Hondo, a trip of about 10 extra miles.

Finally installing the custom-made sign is a small step the group of neighbors who keep up the road have taken to solve a longstanding problem that's grown worse over the years: traffic.

It's up to about 40 homeowners on the northern two miles of Tune Drive to pass around the collection basket at their annual meetings and dinner parties, piecing together a few thousand dollars for upkeep on the road. The increased traffic on Tune Drive and the problems it brings have become "the bane of our existence," said resident Mary Lane Leslie.

The road is undeniably rough. It's teeth-rattling, cheek-flapping washboards run the length of Tune Drive almost from start to finish. In a year with strong monsoons, it suffers from potholes as badly as any other dirt road in Taos. That all leads to broken windshields, hubcaps flying off the side of the road and ruts -- "break-your-axle ruts," said resident Janelle Palma.

Getting to the springs

Leslie moved to the area in the 1990s, not long after the land was subdivided to make the Stagecoach Hills Neighborhood between Arroyo Hondo and U.S. 64. Back then, only 10 homes dotted the road instead of 80, Leslie said.

But that's all changed. In the past two decades, Leslie says traffic on Tune Drive has jumped from maybe four or five vehicles a day to at least 15 an hour.

Though traffic has long been a mix of locals getting to their homes on the Hondo Mesa and tourists getting to the hot springs, Leslie and Palma said, the perpetual motorcade of nonresidents has seen an uptick since the creation of the Río Grande Del Norte National Monument in 2013 and the growing outdoor adventure industry that came with it.

Hot springs are popular destinations across the West. The Stagecoach Hot Springs, also called the Manby Hot Springs, pools at the bottom of a fairly easy hike down the inward slope of the Río Grande Gorge offers an iconic experience (and photo) that's worthy of even the most well-curated social media accounts.

The hot springs are within the national monument, but the "parking lot," a few dirt turnarounds on the edge of the gorge with no railings or infrastructure, save for a single port-a-potty, is not. It's private land under a conservation easement from the 1980s, according to the Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Zachary Stone.

"The easement allowed the BLM to preserve the viewshed of the scenic rim area from future development and...also allowed for BLM access for inspection purposes but provided no access for the public," Stone said. "At the moment, all routes the public can drive are at least in part on private roads/routes."

Indeed, the route through Arroyo Hondo crosses a stretch of dirt road that's far less developed than Tune Drive and in several spots has two "roads" running parallel, so when the mud holes are too bad on one side, there's another option.

Furthermore, the neighbors criticize various publications and websites, including The Taos News, for promoting the hot springs as a tourist destination without also acknowledging that Tune Drive is a private road and promoting the alternate route. (They've managed to have the directions changed on Google Maps and a couple of local websites).

But the few dozen homeowners responsible for the road haven't been able to keep pace with the traffic and the costly wear and tear it entails.

A costly question

George Tune, a recently deceased land developer, kept ownership of the two miles of the road nearest to the highway "but did not include himself or his successors as legally obligated to be part of the road maintenance of Tune Drive," according to Leslie.

Even though it's a fairly affluent area, their road association hasn't been able to rally enough buy-in to raise the fees for road maintenance. A provision written into the original neighborhood charter set in stone the road work fee at only $10 an acre per homeowner.

Simply put, that doesn't cover the costs of the needed work, such as replacing culverts and dumping truckloads of new gravel. Leslie said that despite their pleadings, Tune "actually refused" to pay for upkeep on the road.

Leslie, Palma and others who want to do something about Tune Drive would need 100 percent agreement to change the charter. In two decades, that still hasn't happened, despite the dinner party conversations and niceties.

The Tune Drive residents also have to foot the bill for about $1,200 a year in insurance, Leslie said.

The neighbors can afford two gradings a year to smooth out the washboards. Usually, they said, the headache-causing shakes are back within two weeks, tops.

It's a tough situation with no easy solutions that are at once cheap and effective.

Much like gates, signs only stop people with honor. "Even though we posted the sign, it doesn't deter anyone," said Palma.

(On the northern side of the hot springs, some residents have signs posted outside their individual driveways. Instead of banking on a traditional "no trespassing" message to deter people, theirs are a buzzkill, letting the wayward tourist know the hot springs aren't that way but giving no direction about where to go).

The neighbors have spoken with officials at Taos County before about turning Tune Drive into a road that's owned and maintained by the county. But those conversations stalled out.

"No petition (to become a county road) has ever been filed, but I have had discussions with the neighborhood association about their options," said Taos County Commissioner Tom Blankenhorn, "including a possible partnership with the county that would continue to collect the current road fees."

It's that last part that makes Leslie and the neighbors think its a raw deal. They think they could still make their neighborhood dollars stretch further than the county government could.

Though the neighbors have had no formal talks with New Mexico officials, they're toying with the idea of the state taking over ownership of the road. That could make it possible to piggyback off the monument designation and get federal funds to improve -- even pave -- the road because it leads to such a highly visited spot on federally held lands.

But Leslie and Palma don't seem altogether hopeful about this option either, knowing the congressional representatives from New Mexico have more pressing matters to deal with than a dirt road in Taos County, they said.

They've also talked about instituting a voluntary toll, posting the link to a PayPal account at the start of the road so that if people are going to take Tune Drive, they can pay a dollar or two from their phones. But no one's created the account yet.

Of course, they could use their "last remedy," closing the road and putting up a gate. But they're also not hopeful it wouldn't get torn down. Plus, Leslie said, "We' don't want to hurt people that way."

Locals already feel pushed out of some of their favorite places, and the occasional old couple visiting Taos asks nicely if they can take Tune Drive to the hot springs.

So now they're putting out a public appeal: take the county-owned road from Arroyo Hondo to get to the springs. But if a driver is absolutely going to take Tune Drive, "slow down for the safety of walkers, dogs, kids, horses and hikers."

"We're stuck and the road's going to get worse and worse. If the public wants to use it, we need the public's help," Palma said.

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