County considers road to prevent rail closing

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Citizen objections about a local rail crossing closure pulled Valencia County into the fray, pushing the commissioners to consider whether the county should be responsible for the road that crosses the tracks.

At a recent county commission meeting, Frank Sharpless, New Mexico Department of Transportation Transit and Rail Division director, brought the commissioners up to speed on the proposed closure of an uncontrolled, at-grade railroad crossing in Los Chavez.

The crossing is on an unnamed private road and was described as being at Mile Marker 928.76. Sharpless said this crossing is just one crossing along the 100 miles it owns between Belen and Santa Fe for operation of the Rail Runner commuter train.

He said in that 100 miles, there are 78 crossings at public roads and 32 on private roads.

"Historically, the public road maintenance and responsibility was on the local body … and private roads were developed over time after the railroad was there so that individuals who had ownership of property on other side of rail had access," Sharpless said. "It usually had restricted access. But over time, the private crossing became a public crossing because everybody knew about it."

That is now the dilemma DOT is facing in Los Chavez, he said.

"The owner (of the road) doesn't he feel should be responsible for people other than himself. I know there is opposition to closing the crossing. But there is DOT liability. We need to do something," Sharpless said. "We need a private-crossing agreement, make this a public road or unfortunately, we need to close the crossing."

Since the owner has not signed a private crossing agreement, the DOT initiated the process to close the crossing, which included putting up signs, informing the owner by letter, newspaper advertisements and a 30-day comment period. The department received 11 letters and eight phone calls in opposition of the closure. Final closure of the crossing requires action by the DOT cabinet secretary.

But those objections have made their way to the ears of the commissioners, so Chairman Charles Eaton asked that a representative of DOT come to the commission and explain the situation.

Unless an agreement was put in place, Sharpless said the only other option to keep it open was for the county to make it a public road and take on the maintenance.

Sharpless noted that the county had accepted Calle de Oro off N.M. 47 south of the Mid-Valley Airpark as a public road in order to prevent a hardship to residents. If the crossing had been closed, those who lived on the road would not have been able to access their homes without significant rerouting.

That road, as well as part of Luscombe Lane, were both accepted as public roads after two separate collisions between the Rail Runner Express and passenger vehicles in the fall of 2007 that killed three people.

Sharpless said in the case of Calle de Oro, no one was willing to do a private-crossing agreement, so residents petitioned the county to take the road.

"The thing to remember is, once a crossing becomes public, DOT can spend money on it. Requests for improvements on private crossings are denied because of anti-donation laws," he said. "If it's public, we can put up lights, gates, advanced warning signs."

Eaton said the crossing is in his district and he was contacted by residents. He said it seemed like the Rail Runner was causing crossings to close in the County, thus closing down a lot of agricultural opportunities.

"We want to prevent that from happening," Eaton said. "This is an agricultural community. I think the alternate route could potentially be a safety concern as well. We see our farming community as an economic driver."

County Commissioner Alicia Aguilar asked if the county takes the road, who takes on the liability if there is an accident.

Sharpless said there would be a licensing agreement between DOT and the county if that's the direction things went.

Valencia County Public Works Director Kelly Bouska said she was meeting with the road's owners to begin the process of transferring the private road to the county, making it a public road. After that process is complete, Bouska said her department will take the necessary steps and go before the commissioners to see if they want to put the road on the county's maintenance rolls.

After all those things are done, the county can begin working with DOT to secure funding for safety equipment for the crossing, she said.


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