By Jack King
Curry County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to close the Wheaton Street railroad crossing, approving an agreement with Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad the Clovis City Commission approved Monday.
The vote means BNSF can begin work on an extension of its Clovis railroad yard, adding three new tracks on each end of the yard.
The project is estimated to cost $15 million and generate approximately 80 jobs, with a payroll of about $6 million, according to BNSF.
The commissioners criticized some parts of the agreement and succeeded in securing some changes before voting to approve it.
Commissioner Pete Hulder said since the agreement doesn’t guarantee a specific number of jobs, the railroad could provide 20, even 10, jobs and be in compliance.
Greg White, general manager of BNSF’s southwestern division, said the company already has hired 51 people to work in conductor-level jobs created by the project and has plans to hire at least 10 more.
At Hulder’s request, the commission changed a section in the agreement reading, “If the state law allows, County will offer property tax abatement to the Railroad …,” to read “County may offer property tax abatement.”
Commissioner Ed Perales noted that the term “permanent” has been removed from passages about the closure and asked if this means that if BNSF abandons the project Curry County could re-establish the crossing.
County Attorney Stephen Doerr said the county does have that right, but White added that the expansion is fully funded and BNSF will complete the project.
At Perales’ request, the commission inserted new language in a section of the agreement stating the railroad will work with all parties to develop plans, within the next two years, for the construction of an overpass at State Road 467. The inserted language states that the project may take longer than two years to complete.
Perales said the reason for the change was so the county wouldn’t back out of its obligations to the railroad if the project takes longer than two years.
White said BNSF is obligated by law to provide 10 percent of the overpass funds and supports the project. He also noted that Gov. Bill Richardson has personally endorsed the overpass.
BNSF also gave the commission a letter stating its safety measures regarding grade crossings and train operations in the area would remain in place until the county, city of Clovis and BNSF all agreed to terminate them.
Wheaton Road resident Victor Chavez said he has filed a civil complaint against the county in 9th District Court, claiming that, in approving the Wheaton Street closing, the county failed to follow its own, or state, subdivision regulations.
“This is not over. We’re going to stay on it, because we’re in the right,” he said.