BELEN, N.M. (KRQE) – We all know vacant, rundown homes can be a source of endless frustration for neighbors. In this case, the problem landlord for about a dozen properties in a small New Mexico community happens to be a state department.

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“I like the elevation and the clean air, and the sunsets are fantastic,” explained Steve Ferguson. He moved to Belen with his wife years ago to retire. “You know, get away from California taxes,” Ferguson chuckled.

But his quiet retirement living has been interrupted over the last few months. Train tracks for the BNSF railway are right around the corner from Ferguson’s home, where roughly 90 trains go by every 24 hours.

However, the sound of the train horns is not the problem keeping Ferguson up at night. “No. They really need to focus on getting these houses down and outta here,” Ferguson said, pointing out a cluster of vacant homes nearby. “They’re nothing but an eyesore and a criminal element attraction.”

Over the past year, Ferguson’s neighbors were forced to vacate a dozen homes as part of a project to improve the railroad intersection at Highway 109 and put a stop to long traffic delays caused by the train. Construction for the project is something neighbors are looking forward to.

When a train passes, traffic is stopped in both directions on Jarales Road. When the project is finished, an overpass will guide traffic over the train tracks.

A long waiting game

While local traffic and emergency vehicles currently have to wait for each passing train, neighbors are also waiting for the project to break ground. “Right now, these houses need to be gone for the project to even start in order to build the overpass,” Ferguson explained.

The state recently purchased a dozen homes for $2.3 million dollars. Ferguson’s rural community is now littered with boarded-up houses and overgrown weeds.

“It’s been nothing but a headache,” he said. Ferguson pointed to weeds growing higher than rooftops, and says copper thieves and vandals have been picking apart the abandoned homes over the last few months.

Photo pre-clean-up of overgrown weeds on vacant NMDOT property in Belen, N.M.

The owner of these vacant homes and the agency in charge of upkeep is the New Mexico Department of Transportation. “Our maintenance patrol did get out there a couple of times over the summer and tried to do the best they could with the weed situation,” explained Kimberly Gallegos, NMDOT spokesperson for District 3, which covers Bernalillo and Valencia Counties.

“We’ll just try to have it on our radar and stay on top of it because we realize this is a huge inconvenience to the neighbors,” Gallegos told KRQE. “But at the same time, we realize that this project is going to bring a lot of positive benefits to the community. So we’re just asking for their patience, continued patience during this time.”

Gallegos said the NMDOT is doing its best to keep the vacant properties safe and secure before the homes are demolished. However, it’ll be a while before that happens.

The $46.6 million dollar project to build the railroad crossing is already behind its original schedule.

Why can’t the homes come down now?

Gallegos explained why the homes would not immediately be demolished.

“What happened there is that we were not able to get a separate contract for the demolition,” she said. “So because of that, we’re asking the contractor that gets awarded the job to be the one to demolish these properties.”

She said the NMDOT and BNSF are working together, and the project will go out to bid in April. Tearing down the vacant homes at that point will be up to the contractor who is awarded the bid.

“We’re thinking that the project will start by spring or summer of 2023,” said Gallegos. “So the first job would probably be the demolition.”

While the NMDOT’s priority is maintaining roadways, Gallegos said they’ll have maintenance crews do at least monthly checks on the vacant properties in Belen. Neighbors claim that’s not enough.

(Rain-fueled overgrown weeds on NMDOT-owned vacant property in Belen, N.M.)

Worried about a fire hazard, Ferguson said he’d spent a lot of his own time clearing out overgrown weeds on both sides of his fence line. If the money is already funded for the project, he doesn’t understand what’s taking so long to tear down the homes and clear out the properties.

“Having to wait until spring, what do you say to that?” KRQE News 13 asked Ferguson. “Baloney,” he replied. “It’s ridiculous. There’s only ten little houses, and a bulldozer can get them done and gone.”

For now, massive piles of weeds and debris sit on those properties. Gallegos said that’s partly because the NMDOT crew was worried about hitting gas lines with heavy equipment while hauling everything out.

Pile of weeds left after clean-up.

“That is something we can continue to look into to see if we can get some help with that so we can get some of those old weeds removed,” Gallegos explained. “But for now, that’s how they’ve been addressing it.”

Tired of waiting, Ferguson said he’s speaking up, hoping to speed things up. But waiting is something his community is accustomed to.

Once a contractor is awarded a bid for the project, Gallegos said plans are to start breaking ground on the project by next spring or early summer. It could take a year for the overpass to be built.