JARALES — Residents of Jarales need to start making plans to take the long way home.
Starting Monday, May 8, the triple track, at-grade railroad crossing on Jarales Road, aka N.M. 109, will be permanently closed as BNSF begins work at its facility in Belen and the New Mexico Department of Transportation kicks off the much-awaited overpass project later this summer.
Detour routes will be set up using a loop of state highways — N.M. 314 and N.M. 116 to the west of the community and N.M. 346 to the south — as well as Reinken Avenue to the north in Belen and N.M. 109 south of the crossing.
The road closure is triggered by a 30-day notice to NMDOT by the railroad for work at BNSF fueling depot in Belen. The notice of intended closure was provided to DOT on Saturday, April 8, according to Lena Kent, general director of public affairs for BNSF.
“The crossing may be closed with 30 days’ notice from BNSF to NMDOT when work is planned …” Kent wrote in an email. “In fact, BNSF is planning to do work at its Becker facility in early May, and will be submitting the required 30 days’ notice to NMDOT in order to facilitate those improvements.”
During a virtual meeting on Wednesday, April 5, NMDOT engineers and BNSF staff members gave an update on the project, including the closure of the crossing and detour details.
Construction of the overpass and accompanying roadwork is scheduled to begin in July, DOT staffers said. The construction corridor begins about 1.3 miles south of Reinken Avenue in Belen, near Camino de Crystal, and runs .75 miles south to the area of Trujillo Road. The new overpass will be about 200 feet east of the existing roadway. Smaller roads in the vicinity will be realigned and improved to mesh with the new section of road and overpass.
“The main purpose tonight is to emphasize that the at-grade crossing will be permanently closed and a detour put in place,” said Sandra Chavez, DOT project development engineer. “Once it is closed, it will remain closed until the bridge is done. We anticipate the opening of the overpass late in 2024 or early 2025.”
During construction, Chavez said the contractor will be required to maintain access to all residences in the construction area.
“They will work closely with owners highly effected by the closure and will coordinate to make sure people are not stuck in or out of their houses,” Chavez said.
NMDOT District 3 district engineer Justin Gibson said the department should have a contractor selected for the project by April 21.
With the crossing closed to all traffic, Valencia County emergency service providers are preparing as best they can for the 18-plus month project.
Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil said the closure will absolutely be a challenge and the department will do its best to respond as quickly as possible to calls for service.
“We are going to have to detour; there’s just no alternative. It’s just going to take longer,” Vigil said.
The sheriff said the department will try to station a deputy on the west side of the river more often than it has in the past, but that wouldn’t always be possible.
“We respond to where the calls are,” the sheriff said. “We can have someone start (a shift) there but we can’t guarantee they’ll stay there.”
While there is a substation at the Jarales Community Center south of the crossing, Vigil said it doesn’t offer her deputies many advantages.
The sheriff said she needs to have a conversation with Belen Police Chief James Harris, but is confident his department will be willing to lend a hand in the unincorporated part of the county north of the crossing and south of the city of Belen.
“Our working relationship with Belen has always been good, so I’m sure if something needs attention immediately, they will be willing to help,” Vigil said.
Valencia County Fire Chief Matt Propp said he anticipates response to calls in the Jarales area will be handled by the career staff stationed in the Los Chavez district.
“Our volunteers in Jarales are minimal, and this is a problem nationwide,” Propp said. “Typically, the career staff out of Los Chavez or mutual aid out of Belen or Rio Communities responds to calls down there.”
The Los Chavez fire station is on N.M. 314, and getting from there to Jarales is a “straight shot down” to N.M. 116, the chief said.
“We will be looking at the severity of the call and we might look at doing medical flights more often,” he said. “If we start to see issues, we might need to temporarily put staff in the Jarales area during certain hours, but we’re not there yet.
“We are as prepared as we can be. The only way we would be in a better position is to be able to put staff in the (Jarales) station, but without funding that isn’t an option.”
One semi-silver lining to the closure is knowing that the crossing will always be closed, the chief said. Typically, when emergency services respond to calls using Jarales Road, there is always a question of whether a train will be stopped at the crossing, causing crews to back track.
“In a way, it will make things more manageable because we’ll just know it’s closed,” Propp said. “We have educated our crews on the delays and are making sure they can make appropriate decisions.”
Natalie Barbara, the operations supervisor for AMR ambulance service’s Valencia County operations, said the plan is to access the southern part of Jarales via Castillo Road, which runs east from N.M. 116 to Jarales Road, and access the northern part of the community from Reinken Avenue in Belen.
“A lot will come from (emergency dispatch) to know which side of the tracks the call is coming from,” Barbara said. “For the time being, we aren’t planning to stage on the south side. A lot of this is a tag-team system, and we rely a lot on the fire department.”
An average of 90 trains a day, some up to two miles long, use the triple-track Jarales Road crossing. When trains stop in the crossing, wait times can range from 45 minutes to an hour.
NMDOT official will have the detour route marked to direct traffic along the state highways, but that doesn’t mean locals familiar with the smaller roads won’t make their own alternate routes.
During the virtual meeting, a Jarales resident asked if DOT was going to direct traffic onto Castillo Road as part of the detour route. Castillo, as well as Mill Road, runs east/west between Jarales Road and N.M. 116 to the west, but are much further north and closer to the crossing than the designated east-west detour on N.M. 346 in Bosque.
“We are not encouraging anyone to travel on Castillo, Mill or any local roads,” said Jill Mosher, NMDOT District 3 assistant district engineer. “We are encouraging state road use. We will have signs (on the secondary roads) indicating they are for ‘local traffic only’ to discourage people.”
A man who joined the meeting via phone said there were several houses on the east side of Jarales Road, which were purchased by DOT for the new overpass and roadway, that needed to be demolished quickly.
“They are nothing but a criminal magnet. People have gone in and opened up all the walls and stolen wire, destroyed the swamp coolers, destroyed the steel roofing material,” he said.
Gibson said demolition of the houses would be among the first priorities of the contractor, saying he anticipated them coming down sometime between July and September.
BNSF has contributed $14.5 million to the $40-million-plus project.
To stay up to date about the project, visit nm109.nmdotprojects.org.
Questions about the project can be submitted to Ben Bachwirtz with Wilson and Company at [email protected] through Thursday, April 20.
After that, questions can be sent to NMDOT District 3 public information officer Kimberly Gallegos at [email protected] or by calling her at 505-639-3576.
Jarales Road Closure Presentation
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.