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Bernalillo police investigate the death of a man lying on the track when Amtrak's Southwest Chief rolled through town on February 23.

Bernalillo police investigate Amtrak railway death
Photo credits: —Bill Diven 

Bernalillo moves to protect residents from trains

—Bill Diven

The man killed on the railroad tracks in Bernalillo in late February was only the latest person who, by accident or design, stood, sat, or lay in the path of a train unable to stop. He was at least the twelfth pedestrian to die on the tracks in Sandoval County since 1997, according to Federal Railroad Administration records. Statewide, 161 trespassers on railroad property died during that same time, the FRA reported.

Bernalillo residents remember friends and relatives from farther back killed while walking along the track or in their vehicles at grade crossings.

“This has been happening my whole life,” said Maria Rinaldi, Bernalillo’s interim town administrator and director of community development and planning. “It’s a terrible history, an absolutely horrific history.”

The man who died on February 23 may not be the last fatality, but the town is hoping a combination of fences, trails, designated crossings, and perhaps suicide-hotline phones will reduce the number of casualties and near misses. Rinaldi said construction might begin as early as this summer.

In the meantime, Amtrak and Rail Runner Express recently halved train speeds through Bernalillo to forty mph from 79 mph. Decades ago, when few people lived east of the tracks, Santa Fe Railway’s premier passengers trains could race through at one hundred mph.

“It gives you more time to react,” said George Gonzales, a rail veteran with thirty years at Amtrak before he joined the Rio Metro Transit District as operations manager. “You still can’t stop, but it may give someone time to get off the tracks.”

Two years ago, the town council began agitating for state assistance and is now moving ahead with $310,000 dollars in legislative funding, another $112,000 dollars from the New Mexico Department of Transportation and a possible infusion of additional cash from the Federal Highway Administration. The Rio Metro Transit District, which manages Rail Runner commuter trains for NMDOT, is studying how and where residents are crossing the tracks and using trails on either side.

The district also placed cameras to monitor foot traffic at two popular crossing spots, one just north of the downtown Rail Runner station and the other near Camino del Escuela. Those informal crossings may become the designated crossings, Rinaldi said.

“That’s the reality of living in the community where the track runs the entire length of the community and divides it,” she continued. “You have high-density population on one side of the tracks and public services on the other.”

The study is nearly complete and ready to move into design and then public discussions possibly as part of town council meetings, she added.

Then it’s a matter of how much safety the town and its allies can afford. Initially the state wanted grade separation, completely removing people from the track by routing them to a tunnel or an overpass. That idea soon fell as too costly.

Even the goal of lights, bells, and gate arms that lower to block pedestrian crossings when a train approaches may be beyond the budget. By the time the equipment is bought, installed, and wired like highway crossings, the cost can exceed two hundred thousand dollars, Gonzales said.

“Unless you grade-separate everything, I don’t know how you fix it,” he said. “Getting the three entities to talk about this is a good step in trying to work this out, trying to figure out the problem.”

A study of 25 pedestrian deaths in Charleston, S.C., described the victims generally as healthy, young males. Most of them were intoxicated, suggesting accident rather than suicide, the study reported by the National Institutes of Health found.

The researchers also said investigators in all cases need to eliminate murder staged to look like suicide or accident as a cause.

Bernalillo Police Chief Tom Romero said no foul play is suspected in the February 23 death, although alcohol was involved. In a 2013 incident, a teen boy wearing headphones likely never heard the train approaching from behind, and several deaths were determined to be suicides.

The town also may install “suicide phones” similar to those on the Golden Gate Bridge offering a last chance for people in distress to seek help from a crisis center. The town now prominently displays a link and phone number to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline on its website.

Train crews passing through Bernalillo also have reported kids on the track playing chicken with trains before jumping out of the way.

“These are all contributing factors,” Gonzales said. “We need to do a better job of educating our kids.”

Operation Lifesaver, a national safety program sponsored by railroads, brought a member of Gonzales’s staff to Bernalillo High School after the 2013 fatality. Rio Metro also pushes public service announcements and community outreach with more coming as the Bernalillo project advances, he said.

Regardless of why a person is on the tracks, the pain of killing someone extends beyond the train engineer to the entire organization, Gonzales added. Everyone feels down for a few days, he said, and counseling and time off are offered to the staff directly involved.


 

Sen. Benny Shendo Jr.

Jemez joins gaming tribes in new state compact

—Signpost Staff

The prospect of Jemez Pueblo opening a casino is back in play with passage of a new state compact that covers Jemez and four other gaming tribes.

The compact negotiated by the Martinez administration, and limited to an up-or-down vote, sailed through the Senate 35-7 on March 11 and the House 61-5, two days before the Legislature adjourned. It still must be reviewed and approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior and signed by tribal leaders.

What Jemez might do as a signatory to the compact remains an open question. The Signpost was unable to contact Jemez Gov. Raymond Loretto after the compacts cleared the Legislature.

“My sense is they’ll sign the compact and see what happens down the road,” Sen. Benny Shendo Jr., D-Jemez Pueblo, said shortly before the compact won final approval.

The compact runs for 22 years and covers the Navajo Nation, the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apaches, and Acoma and Jemez pueblos. The gaming tribes’ current compacts are set to expire in June of this year.

Under the new deal, casinos could stay open 24 hours, serve complimentary alcohol outside gaming areas, and extend ten thousand dollars in short-term credit to certain high rollers. It also is forecast to increase revenue to the state and allow for a few additional casinos.

The compact also bans gaming on tribal lands bought after October, 1988, a provision aimed at the Fort Sill Apaches of Oklahoma who purchased thirty acres on Interstate 10 about halfway between Las Cruces and Deming. The Fort Sill band could still attempt to negotiate its own compact.

Jemez Pueblo tried once before to get into commercial gambling with a 2004 plan to open a casino on I-10 at Anthony on the Texas state line nearly three hundred miles from its tribal lands. That riled competitors at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino about twenty miles away and the Mescalero Reservation near Ruidoso.

The dust from the fracas has settled for now with no casino built. Jemez Pueblo straddles State Route 4 with its southern boundary a few miles from U.S. Highway 550 at San Ysidro.

Rep. James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, said he, too, didn’t know what tribal leaders have in mind if the compact takes effect. He did note, however, the pueblo’s location is not on a major highway and that the Jicarilla’s Apache Nugget Casino on U.S. 550 between Cuba and Bloomfield doesn’t draw a lot of traffic.

Santa Ana Pueblo’s casino also is on U.S. 550, but borders Rio Rancho and Bernalillo and is a short drive from Albuquerque.


Rep. James Roger Madalena listens to committee testimony.

Sen. John Sapien leads the Senate Education Committee.

Rep. James Smith leads the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee.

Local bills languish as legislators wrangle

—Bill Diven

Just over a year ago, as the thirty-day session of the Legislature neared its end, Rep. James Smith of Sandia Park could sit with visitors to chat about the session and the seven bills he sponsored—but not this year.

With less than a week left in the sixty-day session, Republican White was very busy leading his own committee around the third floor of the Roundhouse, testifying on his own bills before other panels, and planning strategy with other Republican leaders. This year, his name is on 12 bills, some deeply controversial, like the one requiring voters to produce an ID, and all with some chance of passing the House since his party is now in charge.

This session Rep. James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, is the one with time to talk. After 34 years in the House, this is the first time his party has been out of power.

“Now we know how they feel being in the minority all these years,” Madalena told the Signpost after a meeting of the Government, Elections, and Indian Affairs Committee, which White chairs.

White and Madalena together represent the bulk of Sandoval County outside Rio Rancho and the Jemez Mountains. Madalena’s district stretches from Sandia Pueblo through Bernalillo, and includes seven more pueblos (all of the rural west excluding the Cuba). His district also takes in parts of San Juan and Rio Arriba counties. Smith’s district includes Placitas and Algodones and extends into Albuquerque’s East Mountains and part of Santa Fe County around Edgewood.

The committee White chairs didn’t exist until Republicans took control of the House in the last election and overhauled its structure. Where Madalena once chaired the Health and Human Services Committee, he is now one member of the new Health Committee

And of the four bills Madalena introduced addressing state and tribal social services, all remained mired in committees and died when the session adjourned at noon on March 21.

“It’s unfortunate,” Madalena said of the session as a whole. “On the minority side we feel like we haven’t done anything constructive. We are still butting heads.”

Only Madalena’s House memorial asking the Tribal Infrastructure Project Fund to include upgrading libraries on pueblos and reservations cleared the full House. It passed seventy to zero, although memorials only express the sense of the House or Senate and lack the force of law.

On the Senate side, Democrats still in power blocked high-profile legislation that newly empowered House Republicans built around hot-button issues like abortion, immigrant driver’s licenses, and a so-called right-to-work law. As time ran out, a $264 million dollar package of public works projects died in a House-Senate dispute over how to pay for highway work: incurring debt, favored by Republicans, or increasing the gasoline tax, the choice of Democrats.

Still, House Republicans and Senate Democrats do get along—as when White appeared before the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales. White arrived to support his proposal for a system to evaluate the effectiveness of schoolteachers and principals, only to find out the committee would adjourn without considering it. Sapien assured White that the delay would be short and was only due to the Senate being called into full session. And each said his committee was acting on bills from the other house.

“Jim Smith and I worked very much in a bipartisan manner drafting two House bills,” Sapien said. “Unfortunately, through the committee process, both bills stalled and were not looked upon favorably.”

Both bills were dear to some Placitas residents, concerning a zoning dispute with Vulcan Inc. over gravel mining on the west side of the community. One bill would have increased fines for gravel quarries violating zoning regulations; the other moved sand and gravel mining under the state Mining Act, which would increase regulation and add public hearings.

Sapien’s bill to delay using the state’s new standardized test in teacher evaluations also remained stuck in a Senate committee as time ran out.

Sapien attributed the extra tension between the two bodies to several factors, including the House passing controversial legislation aimed more at the next election. “We have some hiccups that developed in the relationship,” Sapien said. “Now that the House is majority Republican, there are going to be those growing pains about how the House is run by its leadership.”

Sen. Benny Shendo Jr., D-Jemez Pueblo, also saw his bipartisan bill to create a category of dental professional known as dental therapists languish in committee. Sponsored in the House by Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, the bill is aimed at the shortage of dentists in tribal and other rural areas of the state.

On the day before the session ended, however, the Senate approved 23-15 Shendo’s memorial directing four state departments to study the environmental and economic costs of flaring and venting natural gas in the state’s oil fields. Research has shown the state would have earned $42 million dollars in royalties off that gas over the last six years, he said.

“Money is not the only thing,” Shendo told the Signpost. “It affects the environment and health with all that methane floating around.” The session ended at the Signpost deadline for April. Look for details of local issues in the May edition.


USFS proposes Placitas and Piedra Lisa Trail Project

—Cid Morgan, Sandia District Ranger

On March 18, the Sandia Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest (NF) proposed to make additions (including official designation of existing unauthorized trails as well as trail closures, rehabilitation and new trail construction) in the areas within and near the Bernalillo Watershed Research Natural Area and the Sandia Mountain Wilderness.

Designation of unauthorized trails, along with improvements (relocations, rehabilitation, and closure), will assist in providing an official trail system in the area, allowing for improved visitor experiences and safety. Further, designation of trails will enable managers to implement actions to reduce impacts to cultural and wilderness resources and ecosystem health.

The project includes official designation (as multi-use, non-motorized) of approximately twelve miles of single-track trail, adjacent to and within the Bernalillo Watershed Research Natural Area and the Piedra Lisa Trail. Approximately nine miles of trail, to be designated, presently exist as user created routes that generally adhere to USFS trail specifications necessitating a limited number of small-scale maintenance actions for sustainability. The remaining three miles of trail to be designated will be comprised of relocations of existing user-created trails for improving sustainability, connectivity, and removal from designated wilderness.

The objectives of this project are:

  • Designate a small system of trails in the project area (approximately 11 miles)
  • Relocate a number of small trail segments currently located within the Sandia Mountain Wilderness to allow for use by bicycles
  • Relocate/rehabilitate a small number of trails currently exhibiting high rates of soil loss and/or causing damage to cultural sites
  • Construct a small number of trail segments to add non-wilderness connectivity (in place of trails that currently lie within the wilderness).

All trails to be designated will be natural surfaced with a target tread width of 18-24”. Trail relocations will be constructed with hand-tools or, possibly, a small “trail machine” and adhere to USFS design and construction standards. Trail segments to be closed will be rehabilitated to discourage further use and minimize further erosion/impacts to resources. Rehabilitation measures will include scarifying the trail, installing erosion control features (such as check dams) and native vegetation.

It is anticipated that a bulk of the trail construction and improvement work will be implemented during the spring/summer of 2015 (starting in April/May) and may last into 2016. This proposal is consistent with, and similar to, the categories of action that may be excluded from documentation in an EA or EDI.

The project area is located three miles east of I 25 and adjacent (directly south) of NM 165. Within the project area, two special management areas are wholly or partially contained: the Bernalillo Research Natural Area (approx. 1100 acres) and the Sandia Mountain Wilderness (approx. 625 acres). The total mileage of National Forest System trails is approximately 3.4 miles and roads totaling six miles. Additionally, three designated parking areas/trailheads exist including the Strip Mine trailhead, the Piedra Lisa trailhead, and a trailhead located at the west entrance of FS Road 445 directly adjacent to NM-165.

Day-use of the area has risen steadily over the past decades concurrently with the overall development of the surrounding communities. In some cases, unauthorized activities are occurring, including use of mountain bikes in designated wilderness as well as motor vehicles traveling off designated roads. As a result, a number of unauthorized trails and roads totaling approximately forty miles have developed. While the source of development varies, including the use of old cattle trails, horse paths, and more recently, unauthorized trail construction, many segments of trails are exhibiting high rates of soil loss/erosion.

In the late spring of 2013, the district released a Proposed Action (PA) for the formal designation of a non-motorized, multi-use trail system in the area. Along with formal designation, the PA outlined a number of actions to relocate, close, and/or rehabilitate trails, prohibit cross-country (off-trail) travel, officially designate trailheads/parking areas (and prohibiting parking in any other locations), and ban campfires/camping within the non-wilderness portions of the project area. Additionally, a public meeting was held in tandem with the scoping period. Following the release of the PA and public meeting, the district reassessed the project and decided to merge a bulk of the action with an upcoming larger-scale forest restoration project to better utilize limited resources.

 In addition to the work in Placitas, this PA seeks to make changes to the southern non-wilderness portion of the Piedra Lisa Trail #135. Currently, trail users must walk along a road from the trailhead for approximately one half of a mile to access the trail. Further, the segment of trail leading up to the wilderness boundary is highly eroded and is very steep preventing a sustainable alignment. The district seeks to relocate the existing trail combined with an extension to the trailhead that will remove the road walk and be more sustainably designed.

If you have specific comments on this proposal, titled Placitas and Piedra Lisa Trail Project, send them to the Wilderness and Trails Program Manager Kerry Wood (kwood@fs.fed.us). Although always welcome, responses submitted before April 20 would be most helpful.

 
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