In N.M., road construction not end of highway memorials

Shari V. Hill/Las Cruces Sun-News

This “descanso,” the Spanish word for place of rest, sits along Interstate 10, south of the new ramp in Las Cruces, N.M. Three large crosses were placed in honor of Brett Sexton after his death in November 2004.

Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) – They demolished an old ramp, constructed a massive new one and pushed around tons of dirt and desert brush.

But in their year’s labor to build a more efficient connection between local highways, workers have yet to move three prominent descansos sitting just east of Interstate 10 and south of the new flyover ramp from Interstate 25.

“We try to do everything respectfully,” said Leo Montoya, a project manager for the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

That mindset, plus what Montoya called the conservative nature of traffic engineers, results in great care and precaution for descansos – the makeshift roadside memorials common in New Mexico.

Montoya, who has been a supervisor since 2007, said crews won’t move them if they can work around them. It means, Montoya said, that any descansos encountered during projects statewide will be noted in construction plans.

If the highway project requires that the often delicate descansos be removed, workers will survey the marker’s location so they can replant it in the exact original location when the work is done.

Workers are often more precise in replacing descansos than family members were in initially displaying them. New Mexico State Police Capt. Rich Libicer said descansos are “rarely in the exact spot” where a fatal crash happened. Surviving family members rarely go to the scene in the heartbreaking moments after such crashes, and only some of them obtain police reports containing location information.

In some cases, such as the widening of a highway, the descansos simply can’t be re-established precisely where they were erected. Montoya said when that happens, crews place them in a nearby shoulder.

Montoya added that crews often store them in secure construction sheds if descansos will be displaced for a longer stretch. That has happened to some descansos dotting the median of U.S. Highway 70 where crews have been working to install cable barriers, part of an overarching effort to make safer the infamous roadway.

Perhaps no barrier could have saved the life of Brett Sexton.

He died on a foggy November morning in 2004, according to Sun-News archives, when his 1996 Kenworth tractor-trailer rolled off the ramp joining southbound I-25 to westbound I-10.

State police reported that Sexton, who was hauling cinder blocks on a flat-bed trailer, drove too fast over the now-razed ramp, one that had a sharper curve than the new ramp.

He was alone in the truck’s cab, but the three crosses bear Sexton’s name and those of some family members. They sit near the apex of that former ramp, Montoya said.

Two heavy trucks rumbled by the memorial in a short period just before noon on a recent Friday. Neither came close to Sexton’s descansos.

Red roadrunner figures grace the lip of the new flyover ramp, just northwest of the descansos. Much of the desert landscaping close to the highway structures is complete.

“We’re just putting the lipstick on,” Montoya said.

Before crews finish, they will grade, shape and seed the triangular area between the interstates and the connecting ramp. It’s possible, Montoya said, that Sexton’s descansos could be temporarily removed to accommodate that process.

Montoya said he personally has never seen a descanso destroyed by crews. Though he admitted that smaller such monuments, which could be shrouded by weeds over the course of several years, could be missed by workers, especially as they sit behind the wheel of heavy equipment.

State transportation department spokeswoman Bridget Spedalieri said the placement of descansos isn’t regulated. There is no permitting process.

“But we don’t encourage them,” she said.

If the monuments are too large or pose a road hazard, they could be moved, she said.

Generally, however, workers take significant care to respect the small ways New Mexicans honor loved ones lost on the highway.

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