City to apply for federal funds for interchange

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Belen city officials are scrambling to put together an application for a federal grant that could fund the construction of the North Belen Interchange.

Jim Wood, vice president of Coast Range Investments, approached city officials last month asking if they would be the agent to apply for a federal grant to finish the Interstate 25 interchange at exit 195 in Belen.

The Rancho Cielo Development developer, Coast Range Investments, would contribute $1 million in matching funds toward the construction of the interchange, estimated to cost anywhere from $4.5 to $5 million, Wood said.

If Wood were to fund the interchange himself, he wouldn't have funds for the development's infrastructure, such as internal roads and water and sewer extensions, said Steve Tomita, the city of Belen's director of planning and zoning.

The existing interchange is a three-legged system that doesn't allow access to the west side of I-25, which would be needed for development in Rancho Cielo as well as giving easier access along north and southbound directions on the interstate.

Rancho Cielo is 6,000 acres stretching from Belen Business Loop 13 to Los Lunas, where Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad officials said they planned on building a multimodal logistics center, including distribution, warehousing and manufacturing facilities.

The city will apply for Transportation Improvement Program funds to the Mid-Region Council of Government by Nov. 21. If approved by NMCOG, the application will then be moved for approval from the New Mexico Department of Transportation and finally the Federal Highway and Federal Transit Administrations.

But since it's a federal grant, the application must come from the city, not a private individual, said Belen Councilor Wayne Gallegos.

Before moving forward with the application, city officials met with MRCOG to ensure this application wouldn't affect other capital improvement projects the city was seeking funds for from the state, but it doesn't, Tomita said.

One bump the application has faced is resistance of approval from NMDOT, since they started building the interchange, investing $3 million, but later pulled out of the project.

"There's a bit of controversy on it, but I think it's going to resolve itself," Tomita said.

In 2007, legislators appropriated $1 million for the project and an additional $3 million in 2008 to plan, design and construct improvements to the North Belen interchange.

Although the state began constructing the interchange, they later packed up and left when the developer said he would wait to contribute his share to the project, about $4 million, until a user or company agreed to build on Rancho Cielo land.

At that time, Signet Solar had withdrawn their commitment to build an $840 million manufacturing center at Rancho Cielo after being unable to secure a loan from the U.S. Department of Energy to build the plant.

However, attracting potential companies to develop in Rancho Cielo is dependent upon completion of the interchange.

"There's a lot of interested parties, but the key of getting anybody to ultimately say yes and sign the dotted line is that we need to have that interchange," Tomita said.

"If it kicks off, then it can spin other things off. Belen can just go nuts over night."

Funds for the project aren't estimated to be available until about 2015 to 2016, but the sooner the application is in line for those funds, the sooner the city will receive them.

"That's why it's important to get it in now, because the longer we wait, the longer it will take to get the money," Tomita said.

Since the city has no financial obligation in the project, the matter wouldn't need to be approved by the city council to submit the application.

Once the grant is approved at the federal level, an escrow will be created for access by the city for the matching funds.


-- Email the author at aortiz@news-bulletin.com.