SOCORRO – For decades, families along Bauman Road in Socorro have struggled to build their lives. Many constructed their homes with their own hands. They campaigned to bring running water and sewerage to their neighborhoods and other colonias, so they no longer had to carry water in buckets and dig their own septic tanks. They saved their homes from seizure after the developer who owned their parcels failed to pay taxes.
The Bauman Road families say they now face another threat, from their own city government, which is exploring whether to build a major four-lane road through their neighborhood. If approved, the $50 million Socorro city road project would result in the demolition of 28 homes in the neighborhood and thousands more vehicles passing through the neighborhood each day, according to a report prepared for the city.
“If they take my house away, I don’t know where I’ll go to live,” said Noemi Hermosillo, whose father built their family home more than 30 years ago.
The plan to build a new arterial road to connect Socorro Road to Interstate 10 is fraught with confusion, much of it caused by a municipal government that struggles to explain the project and its own actions.
The Socorro City Council will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday to once again discuss the project, after postponing action at a June 1 meeting that included strong protests from Bauman Road residents.
Socorro City Manager Adriana Rodarte said the agenda item for both the meetings – to accept a report and recommendations of an engineer hired by the city to assess possible routes for the road – was a mistake and will be deleted at the outset of Thursday’s meeting. But the region’s top road planner said the delays and confusion by Socorro could threaten the project.
About 1,000 people live along the route for the new road that was identified as the preferred option by an engineering company hired by the city. Some of them will lose their homes if the project goes through, and all will see their neighborhood greatly altered.
“I feel for the people. It’s not just a property. It’s not just the value. That’s their life,” said Alma Bravo, whose father built their Bauman Road home himself more than 40 years ago. Her mother still lives there.
The need for new roadways
Socorro is growing, rapidly. The city had 38,000 residents in 2022, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, adding more than 3,400 people in the two years since the 2020 census. In fact, Socorro accounts for all of the net population growth in El Paso County since 2020.
So there’s widespread agreement that Socorro needs a new arterial road to better connect its residents to I-10, and to jobs and schooling in El Paso. The contention has been over where to build the road.
The proposed route that includes Bauman Road – known as Alternative 1 – was among three routes identified for the Arterial 1 project in 2018. It was listed as the preferred route in a March 2023 report by CEA Group, an El Paso engineering firm hired by the city of Socorro to perform studies required by federal environmental laws.
CEA rated the alternatives based on environmental and human impacts as spelled out in federal laws and regulations, and said Alternative 1 was the preferred route.
Alternative 1 would create a four-lane road from Socorro Road through Vineyard Road, then across Alameda Avenue via Bauman Road to North Loop Drive in front of Robert R. Rojas Elementary School, then through current farmland to Interstate 10.
The other two routes are southeast of Bauman Road and also would require demolition of homes and other structures, according to the report. More that 1,200 people live along Alternative 2, and about 640 live along Alternative 3.
According to Federal Highway Administration data provided by El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization to El Paso Matters, 36% of the households along Alternative 1 have incomes of less than $15,000 a year, twice the rate of Socorro as a whole. The rate for Alternative 2 is 27% and Alternative 3 is 19%.
The plans for a new arterial roadway to better connect Socorro to Interstate 10 began taking shape in 2014. The City Council had public hearings in 2021 and 2022 to discuss the project, but many residents along the proposed Alternative 1 route said they didn’t know about the hearings.
The residents along Alternative 1 began to organize this spring ahead of a June 1 City Council meeting to discuss the road project.
They received organizing assistance from the EPISO, which previously helped the community get water and sewerage service, and helped residents keep their homes in the 1980s when the IRS threatened to seize them after the developer failed to pay taxes.
The agenda for the June 1 meeting called for the City Council to accept the CEA Group report and recommendation to build the arterial along the Bauman Road route.
After numerous residents expressed objections at the meeting, the City Council voted to postpone action until September.
City Manager Rodarte said that while the agenda for Thursday includes an item to accept the CEA Group report and recommendation to build Arterial 1 along Bauman Road, the council will delete that item and instead focus on public comment. She said she mistakenly put the item on the June 1 agenda.
“I was under the understanding that at that point we needed an action from council,” Rodarte said in an interview with El Paso Matters.
“It was just, I thought that we were selecting the preferred alternative, which we were not there yet,” she said.
But Eduardo Calvo, executive director of the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization, said voting on whether to accept the report and its recommendations was precisely what the City Council needs to do under the National Environmental Policy Act. That’s the federal law that governs how road projects are developed when federal funds are involved.
“If council says, no, we don’t like the report because the report chooses Alternative 1 and we prefer Alternative 3, that is not a good thing,” Calvo said.
Taking such action would open the city to lawsuits by affected property owners alleging that the council acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner, he said, threatening the viability of the project.
“Now, what they can do, also, I think, and still be OK, is to say, well, no, we’re directing the engineer or the consultant to go back and do further analysis because we’re not satisfied. But to do that, you need more money, too,” Calvo said.
That’s the direction Socorro will take, Rodarte said.
“I do think that that’s something that the city is really focusing on, is making sure that we update that analysis report with all these new comments and also revisit all three alternatives just to make sure that we’re still (on the) same route and see where we’re at,” she said.
Rodarte said the MPO provided Socorro with $4 million to plan the project, and they should have enough money left for more studies.
Calvo said Socorro won’t get additional planning money at this point: “If they come back to the MPO for more money, we’re not going to give them more money.”
He said he has been frustrated by Socorro’s slow pace in moving the project forward. He said his agency provided planning money in 2019.
“It’s part of the growing pains, and I get it. But man, four years, that’s quite a bit of time,” he said.
Calvo said the MPO will be watching the Socorro project more closely. “We’re going to be scrutinizing and really making sure that they’re making progress.”
Anxiety and uncertainty
In the meantime, the 1,000 residents who live along Alternative 1 – including the families on Bauman Road – live with uncertainty and stress about their futures. Rodarte and Calvo said the project won’t begin until 2028 at the earliest, and still must be funded.
About 60 residents along Alternative 1 met with El Paso Matters on Sept. 7 and Sept. 9 to discuss their concerns. Many were elders, who said they are dealing with depression and other mental health issues as they worry about their future if the project is built.
The law requires that property owners be compensated if their land and structures are taken for the road project. The city could use the power of eminent domain to take property if owners don’t agree on a sales price, though city officials say they hope they won’t have to use that power.
“It’s OK that they want to make progress, that they want to make roads. But what we’re fighting for is that if they’re going to get us out of our homes, where are we going to go?” said Jose Mendoza, who built his house 40 years ago.
The CEA Group report doesn’t specify which homes might be taken for the project if Alternative 1 is adopted. But even if their homes survive, residents said, the neighborhood would be fundamentally altered by noise and pollution from the additional 7,000 cars per day projected to flow by their property.
“They’re a vulnerable population, they’re an aging population, and for them to at the end of their lives, now they have to worry about this, now they have to stress over this,” said Dr. Lorena Silvestre-Tobias, who grew up on Bauman Road and is now a family physician. “These are hardworking individuals who don’t harm anyone, who are family individuals, and a lot of them are helping their kids as well.”
Silvestre-Tobias has become one of the leaders of the opposition to building the arterial roadway through the neighborhood where her parents still live.
“All we asked was transparency. If this is something that you guys are planning on doing, let us know so that these people can start planning,” she said.
The issue of transparency comes up repeatedly with the Bauman Roads residents. They say city officials have told them that the Texas Department of Transportation was forcing the city to build the arterial project through Bauman Road, and that the state would cut off future funding if the project wasn’t built.
Rodarte said the city has greatly exceeded the legal requirements for informing residents about the project.
“I hope that people start to open more lines of communication with the city. I do know that there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” she said.
Many of the Bauman Road residents said their city officials aren’t listening to them.
“They should be ashamed of themselves, because they charge us a lot of taxes and we don’t even have sidewalks for many years and nobody cares about us. They should be ashamed of themselves,” said Luis Betancourt, who has lived on Bauman Road for 33 years.