It’s still more than a year away, but the long-awaited railroad overpass project on Jarales Road is moving forward.

The need for a bridge — a separated grade — over the triple railroad tracks on the rural highway has been a topic of discussion for decades. The at-grade crossing, which is about two miles south of the city of Belen, is often blocked by lengthy freight trains.

During a virtual meeting last Thursday to update the community about the project, Sandra Chavez, New Mexico Department of Transportation project development engineer, said an average of 90 trains a day come through the crossing, some nearly two miles long.

Trains blocking the intersection cause delays to motorists, farmers traveling to their fields and emergency vehicles responding to calls.

The department has begun buying property it needs in the vicinity of the crossing for the new roadway and bridge right of way. The environmental study is due to be completed in October, as well as 60 percent of the design work.

Chavez estimated the final design would be done in the late spring or early summer of 2022, with bridge construction to start in the summer or fall of that year.

Edward Cordova, principal engineer with Wilson & Company, the company NMDOT contracted with for engineering on the project, said the new roadway would be offset from the existing path of N.M. 109 — Jarales Road — about 70 feet to the east. The new roadway and bridge will have two 12-foot driving lanes and five-foot shoulders on either side.

Plans call for a retaining wall on the west side of the new road with Jersey barriers, and an embankment on the east with a metal barrier.

Cordova said some side streets in the vicinity of the bridge would be realigned to connect to the new roadway and others, such as Lazy Lane would have cul de sacs put at the ends to facilitate turning around large vehicles, such as busses.

Properties totaling about 10 acres will be bought in their entirety for right of ways, as well as partial segments of other properties totaling about five acres, he said.

“We will need an easement from BNSF for the bridge itself,” Cordova said. “We have talked to all the landowners and are hoping to purchase the property we need by the end of this year or early next year.”

Kelly Heath, a structural engineer with Wilson & Company, said the bridge would be about 330 feet long to span the existing three BNSF tracks and accommodate any future additional tracks.

Since the bridge will have a visual impact on the area, John Taschek, an environmental planner for Ecosphere, said project coordinators wanted to hear from the public about the final appearance of the bridge.

Once construction begins on the bridge itself, Chavez said the existing Jarales Road would be closed.

Cordova said because county officials have expressed concern about large vehicles using Mill and Castillo roads as a detour during the closure, the designated detour route would be along N.M. 436 to the south and N.M. 309 — Reinken Road — to the north.

“That’s the way we’re looking at signing it, but that doesn’t mean locals won’t use Mill or Castillo,” he said. “We can’t prevent them from using that route.”

Other community members asked if the bridge would increase property taxes in the area or the county as a whole, as well as whether the area would be rezoned as industrial.

Chavez said she wasn’t aware of any tax increases connected to the project and would ask about any impacts to local zoning.

“We want to make this a successful project for your community,” she said.

Chavez is the project contact and can be reached at 505-288-4104.

A recording of Thursday’s meeting, comment forms, as well as other project documents and resources can be found at nm109.nmdotprojects.org. NMDOT is asking comments be submitted by Friday, Sept. 3.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.