Hoping to reach a compromise on Wheaton

Jack King

The railroad crossing at Wheaton Street may close after all.
Local officials and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway were unable to reach agreement on a contract last month in connection with BNSF’s planned expansion project. But last week, representatives from the county, city of Clovis and railroad met with Department of Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans and hammered out a new proposal.
The railroad is now willing to help pay for construction of a nearby overpass and local officials say the railroad will not have to guarantee 80 high-paying jobs.
The Clovis City Commission will consider the proposal at a special meeting at 5:15 p.m. Monday in the North Annex of Clovis-Carver Library. The Curry County Commission will consider it at its regular meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the County Courthouse.
Some area residents have complained about closing the crossing because it could delay response time for emergency vehicles.
Proponents are trumpeting potential economic benefits for the region and contend area residents’ safety concerns are overblown.
City and county commissioners said Homans, a secretary in the cabinet of Gov. Bill Richardson, mediated discussions among the interested parties at a meeting Wednesday. The discussions took place in a city police department conference room, following which railroad officials forwarded the proposed agreement to the city and county.
Also at the meeting were representatives of the Clovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce and the Clovis Industrial Development Corporation.
Last month, city commissioners agreed to consider closing a portion of Wheaton Street, though some city commissioners expressed concerns.
County commissioners tabled discussions when the BNSF cut language from the proposal guaranteeing it would comply with several conditions they had set for the closing.
City and county commissioners who attended Wednesday’s meeting said they are satisfied with the new proposed agreement.
“I voted against the first agreement, because I was worried about two or three items in it,” City Commissioner Robert Sandoval said. “I was concerned about safety issues. Also, residents from the southwest part of town told me they didn’t think they would be able to get any of the jobs promised by this project. Homans and Diane Baca of the New Mexico Department of Labor have said they will assist residents in applying for those jobs.”
County Commissioners Albin Smith and Kathrynn Tate, who voted to table the earlier discussion, said they think the new proposal is a good compromise.
“The first agreement we got back (from BNSF), they nixed everything we had asked of them. That was not going to work. This time they put back almost everything we’ve asked. I feel like it’s as good as we’re going to get,” Smith said.
“Both sides had to give a little. I think the community needs this project and I think the agreement is very workable. Homan’s presence was very helpful. I think this shows the governor is really serious about helping economic development on this side of the state,” Tate said.
In a draft of the proposal, provided by the city, the railroad states it will proceed with its expansion, which is estimated to cost $15 million. The draft says the expansion “may” create the opportunity for 80 new jobs in Clovis/Curry County, but the railroad does not guarantee any minimum expenditures.
As part of the project, BNSF will work with the state and other interested parties to develop plans for the construction of an overpass on State Highway 467. The railroad will provide 10 percent of the cost of the construction, up to $500,000. If state law allows, the county will offer property tax abatement to the railroad for the expansion. The railroad agrees to apply the full cost of the abatement toward the cost of the overpass, the agreement says.
The railroad agrees to pay $5,000 each to the city and county for the cost of barricades and signs required for the closure. The city, county, the Clovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce and the Clovis Industrial Development Committee will spearhead efforts to find and obtain funding needed for the overpass. They also will seek assistance from the state of New Mexico and the state’s Congressional delegation, the proposed agreement says.
BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said Friday BNSF believes the project will create approximately 80 jobs, but does not want to be required to guarantee that it will create that number.
Homans said he talked to Richardson about the Wheaton Street closing following the governor’s visit to Clovis on May 7. But Homans said he was in town Wednesday to meet with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and the CIDC about other issues when he was invited to the meeting. He said his role there was to help move discussions along.
“There were a few places where things started to get tripped up, but by coaxing and saying ‘Be reasonable,’ we kept talking and one and a half hours later we had an agreement,” he said.
He said Richardson will discuss the BNSF project during a talk on new jobs his administration is helping to foster in rural New Mexico at 10:15 a.m. Monday at Cardinal Health Center in Albuquerque.