After crashes on U.S. 285, New Mexico residents at odds with officials over road repairs

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus
Traffic on U.S. Highway 285 Feb. 8 near Loving, New Mexico begins to roll slowly as miles of highway is lined with large commercial vehicles.
  • Loving-area residents living along the highway are fearful of dangerous industrial truck traffic.
  • Southeast New Mexico is the second-most funded region when it comes to road repairs.
  • The New Mexico Department of Transportation budgeted $30 million to help fix the troubled highway.
  • The $60.7 million project will upgrade U.S. Highway 285 from the Texas state line to Loving.

Daniel Delgado was killed just miles from his hometown of Loving, New Mexico.

The 59-year-old was heading south on U.S. Highway 285 in May 2017, when he lost control on the narrow road, flipped his vehicle and was ejected in the crash.

Delgado was pronounced dead at the scene.

Two months later in July, Robert Taylor, 38, of Tatum suffered a similar fate when he lost control of the commercial vehicle he was driving after he failed to make a turn and left the roadway. 

The truck landed on its roof, and Taylor was killed instantly.

The most recent data from the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office shows about 99 accidents between January and October 2017 on the highway that runs through Carlsbad, continuing south through the oilfields and across the Texas/New Mexico state line.

Forty-six resulted in injuries, records show, with another 46 leaving passengers unscathed.

The other seven were fatal.

The recent spike in fatalities left residents in the rural communities on the southern edge of the county fearful that a growing influx in industrial traffic could be to blame.

The Sheriff’s Office reported up to 10,000 vehicles traveled through the southern stretches of 285 every day in 2017.

And the number could continue to grow.  

Leo Gonzalez sees the traffic backed right up to his doorstep.

Signs on County Road 716, also known as Higby Hole Road, point the way to drilling rigs. U.S. Highway 285 which intersects with CR 716 runs south into Malaga, New Mexico where residents say heavy industrial traffic is making life difficult.

More:Man killed after flipping vehicle near Malaga

The 46-year-old landlord and many of his extended family live in an area about 2-3 miles south of Loving between the village of about 1,200 residents and the nearby community of Malaga.

His house faces directly onto 285, the only road home.

During his 26 years in the area, Gonzalez raised three children: a daughter, 23, and two sons ages 27 and 18.

He worked tirelessly as a father to ensure they had a safe childhood.

But when Gonzalez steps out of his home and stares into that traffic, he’s not sure he’d be able to do so today.

“We hear the ambulance and the sheriff and the state police go by at least three times a week,” he said. “The traffic is bad. It doesn’t move nothing like it used to.”

Although Gonzalez and his family were not injured, he said he and many neighbors have suffered property damage, losing mailboxes and even a water meter to what he called “reckless” driving of large trucks.

“It was pretty safe until the last three years,” he said. “It’s only getting worse. What we’re afraid of is trying to pull into our property. If we’re trying to turn, the semis don’t slow down.”

U.S. 285 runs as only two opposing lanes through numerous residential communities in southern Eddy County.

Many in the area expressed frustration at a perceived lack of funding for upgrades, repairs and law enforcement that could mitigate the deadly traffic.

Especially when industry moves into the area, bolstering State revenue.

Experts estimated one third of New Mexico's General Fund comes from oil and gas taxes, and in a region overtaken by such operations, residents believe they should get more in return.

“I think we should have the best roads, since this is where all the money comes from,” Gonzalez said. “The money just goes up north to fix their highways. It would be a lot safer if 285 was a four-lane highway.”

Eddy County residents and leaders alike argued for years that their community doesn’t get its fair share of State funding for road repairs.

The recent deaths on 285 only exacerbated the outrage at an apparently booming oil industry, with little of the subsequent revenue trickling down into improvements for the host community.

But data from the New Mexico Department of Transportation tells another story.

The NMDOT divides New Mexico into six districts of U.S. interstates, U.S. routes and state roads. 

Under the the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. routes and interstates fall under the purview of state road agencies such as NMDOT.  

The southeastern portion, District 2, contains Eddy, Lea, Chaves, Lincoln, Curry and parts of De Baca and Otero counties.

Since 2011, District 2 received the second most funding in the State at about $430 million for 80 projects, second to District 1 – the southwest region containing Doña Ana, Luna, Hidalgo, Sierra and parts of Catron and Socorro counties – which had 84 projects totaling in about $472.6 million.

Districts 1 and 2 were by the far the most funded, as both received at least $100 million more than the next highest: District 6 to the northwest, which contains Cibola, McKinley and portions of Sandoval, San Juan, Rio Arriba, Valencia, Socorro and Catron counties.

District 2 also has the most lane miles in the state, with 7,748, while the next most in District 1 was 6,405.

NMDOT Cabinet Secretary Tom Church said District 2 is one of the most imperiled areas of the state road system, a fact not missed by State leadership.

“There is a significant issue in southeast New Mexico with roads because of the oil and gas industry, and the traffic it causes,” he said. “The governor has asked us to supplement where we can. I understand the argument down there.”

Funding is a problem in all regions, Church said, as the state’s economy is choked by the boom and bust of the extraction industry it relies on.

More:Texas man killed in collision south of Loving

He said the state also contains a wide array of rural roads, which can be hard to monitor until tragedy strikes.

“There’s just so much of it,” Church said. “We have one of the largest road systems, but one of the lowest economic bases. The one thing we’re blessed with is our weather. We have good enough weather where we can at least go out and Band-Aid things all year.”

Major road projects, like what would be required to upgrade U.S. 285 can take years, said District 2 Engineer Timothy Parker.

He said a portion of U.S. Highway 82 outside of Artesia, five years ago, created similar fears as 285 does today.

That project, adding passing lanes and shoulder improvements to 31 miles of the U.S. 82 just east of Artesia, cost about $62 million, and is only now being completed, Parker said.

“To get that level of funding, it takes time,” Parker said. “Five years ago, 82 was 285. It was the same kind of safety issues, and some pretty severe accidents. Most of the routes in southeast New Mexico are heavy truck traffic. It creates a conflict point with intersections and passenger vehicles.”   

Gonzalez knows these conflicts well.

He said his adult daughter recently came home in tears after nearly being hit by an oncoming truck as she attempted to turn into the family home off 285.

“It’s dangerous,” Gonzalez said. "We’re scared. I’ve been run off the road.”

Tony Hernandez said fear is the reality for residents who live along 285, south of Loving.

His home for the past 20 years is about three miles south of the village, and without any turn lanes or shoulders, he said the road is a constant source of anger and frustration among residents.

“It’s something that we have to deal with on a daily basis,” said Hernandez, 60. “Many people who are the road users are driving recklessly and causing crashes, even loss of life.”

Most of the traffic, Hernandez said, can be attributed to the oil and gas industry.

As a former Eddy County Sheriff’s Deputy and Eddy County Commissioner, Hernandez has observed the region’s booms and busts for decades.

He said the most recent influx was one of the worst, with brutal accidents occurring just feet from the home Hernandez shares with his wife and the occasional visiting son or daughter or grandkids.

“Everyone is frustrated,” Hernandez said. “We’ve learned to be patient. There’s been all kinds of things happening out here.”

Aside from a higher law enforcement presence —only a temporary fix — Hernandez said the deadly roadway could be mitigated by adding passing and turning lanes to the presently two-lane highway.

“That would benefit the safety,” he said. “There’s just two lanes. There’s nowhere to go if you have to avoid a collision. It’s not even safe for law enforcement to be out here. We have to have a solution to these issues.”

A permanent solution to the chaos on 285 could be on the horizon.

More:7-year-old killed in crash on U.S. 285 near Artesia

Upgrades are being planned for the first 22 miles of 285 from the Texas state line, up into Loving.

Department of Transportation Secretary Tom Church listens to concerns from participants in the annual Bat Brigade Jan. 29 in Santa Fe.

Church predicted the project could be completed — if the necessary funding is secured — in 2 or 3 years.

He said road repairs across the state typically cost about $2 million per mile.  

Ultimately, Parker said the department intends to upgrade 285 all the way to Carlsbad, a task that could cost up to $100 million.

He said 285 is District 2’s “number one” priority.

“That’s oil traffic; that’s commuter traffic,” Parker said. “They’ve been hit hard. There are extreme levels of traffic out there. Those roads have exceeded their intended level of use.”

The first 22 miles of upgrades on 285, from Texas to Loving, were planned in three phases, broken up by mileposts which denote the distance from the state line.

First, from milepost 0 to 7.15, the DOT intends to reconstruct the roadway, adding shoulders, passing lanes and acceleration and deceleration lanes at major intersections.

The first phase will also include replacing two bridges and a concrete culvert structure.

Phase one will cost about $18 million.

The same work will take place from milepost 7.15 to 16.15 during the second phase, costing about $20.5 million.

The third stage will see more lanes added from milepost 16.15 to 22, with a reconstruction project planned for the roadway that travels through Malaga, adding shoulders and a center two-way left turn lane.

A four-lane roadway will be added from milepost 16.38 to 20.41, just south of Loving. There will also be a median added, and the replacement of a bridge.

From milepost 20.41 to 22 — as the road enters Loving — a curb, gutter and sidewalk, along with a raised median and a four-lane roadway will be added.

In total, the final stage of the DOT’s upgrades to 285 was estimated to cost about $22.1 million.

So far, $30 million was secured for the project out of its $60.7 million estimated price tag.

Church said he is lobbying lawmakers for the additional $31 million needed in state funds.

“You get me as much money as you can, and I’ll spend it,” he said. “We have a lot of needs in this state. We’re doing everything we can to solve this problem in the immediate future.”

With only about 58 deputies assigned to Eddy County’s 5,000 square miles — and 40 assigned to patrol — Eddy County Sheriff Mark Cage said he needs help in the present.

The winter months seemed to have brought a pause to the tragedies, but Cage is worried it’s not over yet.

“I believe it’s a crisis,” Cage said. “The whole area south of Eddy County is really struggling with our roads. There’s so much infrastructure that we need down here.”

Newly-elected Eddy County Sheriff is sworn into office, Tuesday at the Eddy County Administrative Complex.

The recent string of tragic crashes came at a time of growth in the rural county known for heavy oil drilling operations.

The industry in southeast New Mexico busted in 2014, but saw a surge of recovery in 2017 bringing more and more exploration and extraction operations to the area.

The added truck traffic on 285, resulted in a terrifying spike in crashes and deaths, Cage said.

The community demanded the State step in, repair the weathered roads and return the area to the safe community it once was.

“We generate a huge amount of revenue for the State,” Cage said. “And we need help with our infrastructure so we can keep generating that revenue and do it safely.”

In the meantime, Cage hopes to add sworn deputies to his force, despite a recently tabled motion by the Eddy County Board of Commissioners to budget $1.1 million for 15 new deputies.

He said the added personnel, when they can be hired, would be specialized to focus on “problem areas” like 285.

More:Safety a priority for public in 285 rehab project

“That way, when things like this come up, I don’t have to pull people from their families, and pay overtime,” Cage said. “But we’re mitigating the problem the best we can.”

The NMDOT announced a proposition to declare the southern portion of 285, between the state line to Loving, as a “safety corridor” where traffic fines could double.

Such a measure could deter reckless driving while the department works to secure a long-term plan.

Two safety corridors are allowed per district, Parker said. They involve a renewed emphasis on the area by law enforcement, while also doubling fines. 

Message boards and speed trailers that display a vehicle's speed to motorists would be installed in area declared a safety corridor. 

“We have people out there making poor decisions,” Parker said. “Many of the fatalities are related to inattention. We can have great roads, but we need good driving. Driving is a privilege, not an entitlement.”  

With a long-term plan in place for repairing 285’s suffering infrastructure, the day-to-day safety is dependent on drivers themselves.

Traffic on U.S. Highway 285 Feb. 8 near Loving, New Mexico begins to roll slowly as miles of highway is lined with large commercial vehicles. In this photo, oilfield traffic from Higby Hole Road waits for an opportunity to turn onto the highway.

Whether motorists are traveling for their own personal reasons, or carrying industrial products and equipment, Cage begged them to pay attention.

“Save that text for later,” he said. “There’s not even anywhere to pull over, so just wait.”

Aside from inattentive driving, Cage also admonished what he called “aggressive drivers” for contributing to the chaos.

“When people are passing in the dirt, sometimes three or four cars at a time, that’s a real problem,” he said. “That’s a recipe for disaster and death.”

To combat misuse of the roadways, Cage said he frequently sends deputies into southern Eddy County to patrol 285 and other areas, a process he called “selective enforcement.”

The Sheriff’s Office will also post vehicles, some manned and some not, along the highway to deter speeders.

Awareness campaigns on social media and through public meetings can also help stop the behavior that causes the wrecks, he said.

More:Data: Rural roads pose many dangers

“We’re gonna continue to keep patrolling,” Cage said. “Hopefully we can get people to pay more attention. It’s our job. I get it. We’re gonna do what we have to do to protect our citizens. It’s a day-to-day thing. We have to be there. It’s a tall order, but we’re gonna do it. I make no excuses.”

To Leo Gonzalez and his family, the worst drivers are not from the communities they roll through, and care little for the path of destruction left behind.

He said the oil and gas and other industries are encroaching on a once quiet lifestyle in the southern stretches of Eddy County.

“We all feel like that,” Gonzalez said. “If we’re hit, there’s nothing that will happen to that big truck. That’s what we’re afraid of.”

Each day, thousands of trucks transport oil, frac sand, natural gas and water across the southeast New Mexican oil patch to service the industry. 

From the east, most take U.S. Highway 62/180, known as the Hobbs Highway. 

Coming from the Pecos region of West Texas, they take 285. 

The dangerous environment created by fleets of massive, 18-wheeled trucks does not go ignored by the industry, said Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. 

He said rig drivers must pass background checks, go through safety training and are often monitored throughout their trips. 

GPS monitors on some rigs can even track location and speed limit, and prevent a vehicle from speeding, he said.

Members of the public, local leaders and police attend a town hall meeting to discuss safety on local highways, Jan. 11 at the Skeen-Whitlock Building, 4021 National Parks Highway.

"It is a huge priority and focus," McEntyre said. "I don't think it's fair to point fingers at any one industry. Every person makes use of public infrastructure. I think the industry has a huge commitment to safety."

McEntyre argued that the oil and gas industry generates "the lion's share" of the New Mexico's revenue, and the communities it develops within should be provided proper roadways by the State.

"It's important to have the right infrastructure in place to accommodate this growth," he said. "The industry is providing more jobs, more oil and more revenue for the State. What happens in Eddy County really helps hold up the rest of the state. 

"Carlsbad is experiencing a boom right now, so it would be responsible for the lawmakers in Santa Fe to put those dollars back into the engine that produced them."

About 25 miles southeast of Carlsbad, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has taken this responsibility onto itself.

More:Can you survive 285?: Locals meet in Carlsbad to discuss highway dangers

WIPP boasts its own fire and emergency response team, dedicated to responding to accidents near the site quicker than nearby municipalities. 

The underground nuclear waste repository brings truck drivers from all over the country into the community delivering waste to be disposed of in the underground salt mine.

Transporting the waste from national laboratories across the country, WIPP drivers drove more than 14 million miles without incident since the underground repository opened in 1999.

Drivers must pass “stringent” safety and emergency response examinations along with maintaining clean driving records, said WIPP spokesman Donavan Mager.

The Department of Energy even monitors shipments via satellite to ensure traffic laws are obeyed.

Traffic on U.S. Highway 285 Feb. 8 near Loving, New Mexico begins to roll slowly as miles of highway is lined with large commercial vehicles.

Mager said the DOE is working with the NMDOT to avoid the danger by rerouting WIPP drivers coming from the east off of 285 and onto the nearby U.S. Highway 62/180 before entering the WIPP site.

Nuclear Waste Partnership, which oversees WIPP’s daily operations, recently started its Roadway Safety Integrated Project, aimed at bringing together experts from around New Mexico to meet and discuss solutions to the danger, hosting a public meeting in January and planning another for Feb. 22.

“As part of our safety culture, we remind our employees of their responsibility to be safe drivers,” Mager said.

Regardless of what the truck drivers are carrying, Debra Vasquez only sees a culture of negligence.

She lives three miles south of Loving with her husband, son and grandkids.

The whole family lives in fear, Vasquez said, of the dangerous decisions she sees truck drivers making every day.

“At 4:30 in the morning, you can already hear it,” she said. “In the evening, it’s bumper to bumper. It’s just really dangerous. We’ve lost too many people on that highway. More than ever before. Something needs to be done. It’s like no one cares.

“I’ve seen those guys on their cellphones. You can’t tell me they’re safe. They don’t care. If they lived out here, they wouldn’t like it.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.