Commuter train from Bernalillo to Belen
The conductor’s cry of “All aboard for Albuquerque” may once again be heard in Bernalillo as the state moves closer to launching a commuter railroad.
But don’t expect the much-mocked billion-dollar bullet train proposed twenty years ago by then-governor Toney Anaya. Picture instead a conventional locomotive and double-decked passenger cars shuttling back and forth between Bernalillo and Belen with stops at cities, towns, and pueblos in between.
And picture those trains running in eighteen months from now.
“The time line is a very short time line, extremely aggressive,” said Lawrence Rael, executive director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments. “Most other communities have to go out and build track and buy right-of-way.
“We have an unusual advantage in that the assets are already there.”
And after at least thirteen studies and legislative memorials over the last thirty years, this time the money may be there as well.
Governor Bill Richardson already has committed $2 million to the project, a million each to the MRCOG and the state department of transportation for preliminary work. Another $6 million for stations, platforms and rolling stock is promised from the sale of bonds approved during the recent special session of the legislature as part of the governor’s $1.5 billion plan to improve highways, rail transit, and air services throughout the state.
Money for train operations would come from the taxing authority of regional transit districts authorized by recent legislation.
“Ticket sales will not cover the operating costs for something like this, it never does,” DOT secretary Rhonda Faught told the Signpost. When Rael told her MRCOG could get a system up and running in eighteen months, she passed that word to the governor, who said, in essence, go for it.
To happen that quickly, Rael said, MRCOG is looking at leasing existing cars and locomotives and cutting a deal with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to use its tracks. Stations and platforms would be simple to start, he added.
“We’re willing to cooperate, but any commuter operation cannot degrade our freight service or negatively affect our freight customers,” Lena Kent of BNSF corporation communications said. “We’re prepared to work with the state of New Mexico.”
J. W. Madison, president of RAILS Inc., said his four-year-old nonpartisan advocacy group is pressing for a larger system with links to El Paso and Denver, plus regular commuter service to Santa Fe. Yet it recognizes Bernalillo-Albuquerque-Belen as the critical first step.
“Were really tickled,” Madison said. “For first time we feel like we’re not just holding a candle in the darkness.”
Well-meaning rail critics often question why people would ride trains when they won’t ride buses, he added. Experience in Dallas, St. Louis, and elsewhere shows that passengers like modern trains and actually increase local bus ridership to reach off-track destinations.
That only works, however, with coordinated bus and shuttle services and trains that run on time, Madison said. In Albuquerque, the downtown train station is adjacent to the city’s bus hub at the Alvarado Transportation Center.
Rael envisions a two- to three-year project to measure demand, cost, and success before pursuing expansion and additional investment. Extending service to Santa Fe would be expensive due to the need to build new track, but that would be balanced against the cost of adding more soon-crowded lanes to I-25, air-quality concerns, and other considerations.
A train to El Paso may also be in the offing even if briefly. Faught said she will be meeting with Amtrak officials to discuss a two- or three-month demonstration train linking El Paso and Albuquerque by way of Las Cruces and Socorro.
Passenger trains operated continuously on that route from the completion of tracks in 1881 until the Santa Fe Railway made the line freight-only in 1967.
Public discussion planned for Placitas-Bernalillo Dam
Plans to improve the Piedra Lisa Dam between Placitas and Bernalillo will be discussed in a public meeting at Bernalillo Town Hall on December 16.
The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers at Bernalillo Town Hall. Consultants working for the Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District will explain their work and take questions and comments.
Engineer Doug Wolf of Tetra Tech Inc. said his firm will analyze the existing dam and potential water flows to recommend improvements to the structure and channels. A preliminary inspection indicates the dam is in excellent condition and has been well maintained by the district, he said.
One question to be answered is whether upstream development is increasing potential runoff in the Piedra Lisa Arroyo, Wolf added.
Tetra Tech will produce new maps showing areas above and below the dam that would be flooded under various scenarios. Project estimates for planning and improvements run about $350,000, with work to be completed by the end of 2005.
The dam, built in 1955 after major flooding in Bernalillo a few years earlier, is immediately south of NM 165, about a quarter mile east of Interstate 25.
Commission to discuss Placitas County
On November 4, Placitas resident Charles Mellon. formally requested that the county manager place an item on the December 4 Sandoval County Commission meeting that would deal with a proposal to create a new county from part of Sandoval County. Mellon is seeking the commission’s approval to place a referendum vote on the November 2004 general election ballot for voters in the affected area east of I-25. Signs and bumper stickers refer to this area as Placitas County. (See last month’s Signpost and this month’s Gauntlet section.)
This item would be in the form of a single question for the voters in that area on whether they would want to create a new county. Mellon said that the referendum would be nonbinding but would be very helpful in assessing the will of the people, and would provide useful information to the state legislature should they decide to consider the issue. He also said that supporters of the idea would pay for the expenses of such a referendum.
Supporters of Placitas County say that a smaller local government would be more responsive to the needs of residents, while not raising taxes. Opponents are satisfied with Sandoval County, and say that it would be too expensive and disruptive to create a new county. Representative Ron Godbey said that he does not support the idea, but would sponsor the legislation if the people want it and he is convinced that they are fully informed of the consequences.
County Commissioner Bill Sapien commented, “I am happy to discuss this issue. Perhaps Placitas residents don’t fully realize the benefits provided by Sandoval County such as all the administrative services of local government. Our roads and law enforcement are getting better all the time.”
County spokesman Gayland Bryant told the Signpost that the commission will discuss and possibly act on the question during the regularly scheduled meeting on December 4 at 3:00 p.m. Mellon requested this date well in advance of the election so that “a vigorous debate can occur for the next eleven months.”
Town manager Lester Swindle opens the evidence vault at the Bernalillo PD to show how it is now neatly organized. This took place during an inspection of the department, its personnel and vehicles—part of Swindle's program “to restore order and professionalism to the department.”
Bernalillo cops make headlines
With the police chief fired and the hunt for a new top cop about to begin, Bernalillo should be a quieter place by now.
Instead, an abundance of headlines continues to keep law enforcement in the public eye as:
- The Bernalillo County district attorney took over a criminal investigation of the town’s police department.
- A critic of the town administration allegedly engaged in a confrontation with gang members which produced a police pursuit resulting in her arrest on felony charges.
- An off-duty state police officer shot a child’s dog that survived the shooting only to die several days later from antifreeze poisoning.
- A citizen’s complaint led Bernalillo police to a meth lab, hazardous chemicals, and the arrest of three suspects.
The month began with the police chief’s job vacant after Bernalillo town councilors unanimously approved mayor Charles Aguilar’s recommendation to fire Ramon Montijo. Montijo, hired in April, had survived a previous attempt to terminate him in June.
Councilors citing concerns about a possible lawsuit declined to discuss their change of heart, but town administrator Lester Swindle said he is confident the reasons discussed in closed meetings “are not challengeable.”
Swindle had cited alleged negligence in department management for suspending Montijo on August 15. Since then, order has been restored to the department, an inspection held, and the evidence vault cleaned up, organized, and placed under the control of a single custodian, he said.
A committee is working on a new job description which, when coupled with advertising and interviewing, will push hiring a new chief into April or May, Swindle said.
Ira Bolnick, Montijo’s attorney, told the Signpost the long delay between the suspension and termination simply gave the town time to find an excuse to fire a chief who exposed corruption within the department. Montijo still plans to sue the city, he said.
Montijo said he discovered problems soon after being hired including missing weapons, equipment, and evidence and a burglary at Bernalillo High School in which one of his officers was a suspect. The resulting criminal investigation was handed over to Bernalillo County district attorney Kari Brandenburg to avoid any conflict of interest with local prosecutors, according to district attorney Lemuel Martinez.
Now Martinez may look at the case of a golden retriever named Scooby shot on October 25 by state police officer Thomas Maes, who said the dog acted aggressively toward him. An internal state police investigation cleared Maes, but late in November Martinez said he is waiting for results of a Bernalillo police investigation.
“We’re getting a lot of calls,” Martinez said. “There’s definitely an outcry.”
For more on the Scooby case, see story in this Signpost.
The police pursuit shortly after midnight on October 27 involved Anthonette “Toni” Osborn, a vocal supporter of chief Montijo and critic of mayor Aguilar. Court records and police reports allege Osborn smashed the windows of a Cadillac with a golf club on Calle Madera, then drove her pickup truck at witnesses, knocked down a fence and fire hydrant, and was chased by a Sandoval County deputy into Bernalillo County where she was stopped and arrested after being doused with pepper spray and mauled by a police dog.
Osborn faces seven traffic and vehicle charges, including driving while intoxicated. Through her lawyer, she waived her court arraignment and pleaded not guilty.
A police report identifies the witnesses to the Calle Madera incident as admitted gang members. Osborn’s husband, Loyd, also was arrested for allegedly hitting Glen Griego of the Calle Madera address with a sawed-off shotgun the previous day.
Police reports cite an ongoing dispute between the Osborns and Griego.
“It seems like a nightmare that doesn’t end,” Toni Osborn told the Signpost. “The whole story will come out.”
On November 5, Bernalillo police responding to a citizen complaint about chemical odors discovered a meth lab in an apartment on Calle Presidente. A federal drug agent assisted the BPD in the search and the arrests of three suspects.
County, water district elections scheduled for February
Sandoval County has scrapped plans for a December mail-in election on two tax questions and instead will hold a regular election early next year.
Balloting tentatively is set for February 3, the same day the Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District elects its board. County attorney David Mathews said he expects county commissioners to consider the new election date when they meet on December 4.
Candidate declarations for two seats on the Coronado board are due December 16.
In the county election, one tax question would extend the 1/4-percent fire-fund tax, which pays for expenses other than personnel for county fire departments. The second question would impose a new 1/4-percent tax to support ambulance and emergency-medical services, including personnel.
Both taxes would be collected as a sales tax on goods and services in unincorporated areas of the county beginning July 1.
Mathews said the proposed mail-in election became expensive and complicated because the county is under a federal court agreement requiring Pueblo and Navajo translators for elections. For mail-in ballots, additional translators working longer hours would add about $25,000 to election costs, he said.
The U. S. Department of Justice has indicated it likely will approve the February election and has complimented the county for the level of voter registration and turnout in Indian country, Mathews added.
The Coronado SWCD learned of the county plan as board members were approving the public notice for its election. Coronado program administrator Vicki French, who initially said she expected a typical low turnout, told board members the tax questions might boost voter numbers at the district polling place, the social center at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church.
The seats held by board chairman Nick Mora and member Ruben Montoya are up for election. Candidates must be resident landowners in the district, which encompasses much of southeastern Sandoval County, but voters need only be registered voters showing proof of residency within the district.
Coronado administers its own election separately from the state election code but in cooperation with the county bureau of elections. Candidate declaration forms are turned into the bureau and are available from board members or by writing to Election Supervisor, Coronado SWCD, P. O. Box 69, Bernalillo, NM 87004.
Stopping the drink-jail-drink cycle in Sandoval County
—Jack E. Thomas
Sandoval County Commission
You'd have to be a grinch not to love the holiday season. It's a time when the glow of tree lights and unopened presents bring out the child in all of us. Unfortunately, the holidays also bring out drunken drivers on our roads and streets.
DWI is one of the worst problems confronting New Mexicans and one that touches all of us, either directly through the loss of lives and property or indirectly through higher insurance premiums and other costs. Yet DWI is one of the state's most preventable problems.
Sandoval County's comprehensive DWI program has logged some very impressive statistics in its ten years of existence. The DWI Planning Council, which I am very proud to chair, continues to refine and enhance our programs. That oversight and the highly professional efforts of the county's top-notch DWI prevention staff are paying off.
The county's multiple-pronged approach to DWI prevention is helping to stop the arrest-jail-re-arrest cycling of DWI offenders. While the numbers of DWI offenders that are released from jail only to repeat the offense time and again in other areas may boggle the mind, we're stopping the drink-jail-drink cycle in Sandoval County.
The county's innovative STARS program, or Sandoval Treatment Adjunct Rehabilitative Services, will begin a new class this spring. The program's combination of extensive substance-abuse counseling and experiential therapy is only for hard-core offenders who have "failed jail" in the past and gone on to rack up multiple DWI convictions.
DWI offenders must serve mandatory jail time before being considered as candidates for the STARS program, which is proving highly successful. Only 16 percent of the 127 offenders who have been sentenced to STARS have been convicted of another DWI after participating in the county program. That number, while still higher than we'd like, compares to a statewide recidivism rate of 35 percent.
To prevent DWIs even before they occur, the county works with our school districts to educate youth about drivers' responsibilities and the deadly consequences of driving while impaired. The county also provides public-awareness campaigns to promote designated-driver programs and other alternatives to drinking and driving.
To help stop illegal sales of alcoholic beverages to underage buyers, the county DWI staff routinely trains merchants on their legal responsibilities and ways to identify underage buyers. Somewhat more clandestinely, the county also conducts routine "sting" operations to randomly check merchants and cite merchants who sell liquor to minors.
For the holidays, law enforcement officers are enforcing DWI laws with saturation patrols and checkpoints county-wide. They will be out en masse to curb drunken drivers, and our officers and judges will have zero tolerance.
If you drink, designate a member of your group to serve as the evening's driver. Otherwise, if you drink and drive, you'll be arrested and jailed. Then you will be fined, sentenced, and, ultimately, referred to the County's DWI program for assessment and treatment. So, when you celebrate, please act responsibly.
Personally and on behalf of the Sandoval County Commission and all county employees who work hard to serve residents, I wish you season's greetings and the very best for the holidays.
Questions or comments for Commissioner Thomas may be mailed to him in care of Sandoval County Administrative Offices, P.O. Box 40, Bernalillo 87004.