Several sellers at the Río Grande Gorge Bridge are defying recent efforts by the state to enforce a ban on vending in the highway right-of-way. The move reveals old tensions among vendors and has increased calls for the various government agencies with jurisdiction over the area to take tangible, immediate steps toward overall safety at the popular destination.
The right-of-way tension grew after a 74-year-old tourist was struck by a vehicle in the vicinity of the bridge and vendors Aug. 5.
Following the incident, vendors - who for the past several years have set up their tables of art, rocks and jewelry mostly on the north shoulder of U.S. 64 - were told by New Mexico Department of Transportation they weren't allowed in the highway right-of-way, according to the department's spokesperson Emilee Cantrell.
Most of the sellers complied with the request and moved to the south side of the highway in an uneven, rocky lot some call the "cul-de-sac."
But Friday (Aug. 18), about five vendors moved their tables back to the north shoulder of the highway, where they say pedestrians are more likely to come over, take a look and buy something.
"We're standing our ground," said Elle Burnett, one of the sellers, told The Taos News Aug. 18 while standing next to her wind chimes in front of a "no vending" sign installed by the department in the past week.
She said the vendors talked among themselves and decided they have the legal right to be on either side of the road.
"These signs are a mere suggestion," said Jim Dodson, another vendor set up on the north side of the highway.
The transportation department relies on local police to actually enforce the right-of-way restrictions. According to state law, vending is expressly banned in all highway right-of-ways, which include but aren't limited to "travel lanes, roadside, shoulder, median, ditches, culverts, ramps turnouts and construction and maintenance easements."
An officer of the Taos County Sheriff's Office told the vendors to move Friday but didn't cite them, Burnett said.
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe told The Taos News in an Aug. 23 email he has received no formal complaint or request from the transportation department to enforce the ban on vending.
But Hogrefe's department isn't the only one with the leeway to enforce the restrictions.
Lt. Edwardo Martinez, of the New Mexico State Police, told The Taos News via email that "we have taken enforcement action in the past." However, because of magistrate and district court rulings from 2010 that came down in favor of vendors' rights to sell near the bridge, state police haven't enforced the vendor restrictions recently, he said.
The vendors on the north side of the highway said that since most of their fellow sellers moved to the south cul-de-sac, tourists have naturally started parking on the north shoulder in ways that are even more dangerous and haphazard than before.
The vendors say that until the Department of Transportation actually blocks off the north shoulder to parking, their presence on the north side actually makes the area safer because tourists can't park their cars so willy-nilly and traffic is generally slower, they said.
But the majority of vendors have stuck to the south lot and some have denounced what they see as a blatant disregard for safety and cooperation with the relevant agencies.
"There's always been two factions, [including] the ones who don't want to comply with basic rules," said Dawn Kohorst, a bridge vendor from the south lot. "Some of us are pissed off at [the five north-side vendors] because they're going to ruin it for everyone," she said.
Moving back to the north side, said Jared Casillas, another south-side vendor, "is an individual choice that most vendors are not in support of."
The jumble of jurisdictions and years of inaction has left virtually everyone confused about how to proceed toward a safer bridge.
"We don't know who is in charge right now. Everyone wants to wash their hands of this," Casillas said of the agencies with some stake in the bridge and surrounding areas, including the state transportation department, local law enforcement and the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Río Grande del Norte National Monument, including the Río Grande Gorge, and leases the developed restroom facility and 19 acres to the highway department.
Indeed, John Bailey, director of the BLM's national monument, told The Taos News that because U.S. 64 is a federal highway, "the BLM is totally out of the picture" when it comes to adjusting the speed limit (which is currently 45 miles per hour) to improve safety in the area - a common suggestion among vendors.
He said the BLM is interested in helping re-design the area with an eye toward safety, but noted the Taos Field Office could face a budget reduction of 30 percent next year under a proposed federal budget and likely would not take on maintenance of the area.
And tourists seem to pick up on the confusion. "It's chaos," said Matt Austin, a Colorado resident who stopped at the bridge Friday, said of the undeveloped areas for parking and vending.
"There should be signs this all is here," he said. "It's sort of secretive, like you don't even know it's coming."
As Kohorst said, "The whole place is a mess. Somebody will have to pour some money into this."