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Updated Feb 16, 2012 - 6:52 am

White House honors Navajo Nation transportation official for safety work

WASHINGTON - Paulson Chaco doesn't do his job for recognition. He says he does it to improve the safety of people traveling in the Navajo Nation.

But Chaco, the director of the Navajo Division of Transportation, took a break from his job anyway Wednesday to be recognized by the White House as a "Champion of Change" for work his agency did last year to improve the safety of U.S. 491. Until the work, the dangerous road in the Navajo Nation had a fatality rate more than three times the national average.

"It's such an honor to have been nominated for work a lot of people have put into, not only myself," Chaco said outside the White House.

He and 10 others were recognized under the Champions program, which highlights local leaders from different sectors each week. This week, the program recognized people whose work has improved America's infrastructure.

"These American heroes are creating jobs today by investing in tomorrow - putting men and women back to work rebuilding America's infrastructure," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

LaHood's department nominated Chaco for the recognition.

"We appreciate their extraordinary efforts to connect people who need their jobs back with the jobs that our communities and economy need done," LaHood said.

Chaco's work on the road, which connects Shiprock and Gallup, N.M., began last March and was funded with $31 million of federal stimulus money, as well as $8 million from the tribe. The work on U.S. 491 included adding two lanes to the highway, improving road quality and installing safety lights at major intersections, he said.

Chaco said the 11 "champions" who gathered at the White House on Wednesday discussed how they used stimulus money to accomplish their projects.

"Many communities benefited from the stimulus," he said. "Not only for creating jobs but improving the quality of life for everyone."

Chaco, whose division is a Cabinet-level agency for the Navajo Nation, said the work on U.S. 491 is almost done, has resulted in more than 500 jobs and could lead to further economic developments in the Four Corners area.

"It was a huge undertaking," he said.

Chaco did not get to meet with President Barack Obama, who was in Wisconsin discussing manufacturing, but he said he was still honored by the recognition.

"It's sad that the president is out of town. I wish he was there to present each one of us a word of encouragement, but the president's busy," he said. "But just being recognized by the president of the United States of America is a great honor."

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