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Snow shows state must do more on Santa Fe roads

The big snowstorms that have hit since Christmas bring up an old question for Santa Fe: Who’s in charge of maintaining our major roads?

After the first wave of heavy snow hit on Dec. 26, a couple of big streets – including Cerrillos Road – didn’t show evidence of a quick effort at snow removal.

A problem is that three of Santa Fe’s major roads – Cerrillos, St. Francis Drive and St. Michael’s Drive – are state highways, making their maintenance the responsibility of the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

And as DOT officials always say when the major winter storms come, the state’s first priority for de-icing operations around here is Interstate 25, particularly the highway’s steep incline at La Bajada. We get that.

But should we accept that it’s asking too much to want both the interstate and the major thoroughfares in New Mexico’s capital city to receive immediate attention after a snowstorm?

The state-versus-city jurisdictional problem also comes up with routine roadwork, like fixing cracks or potholes. Late in 2018, city leaders were raising concerns about another state highway – the obscure N.M. 475, better known to Santa Feans as various parts of Paseo de Peralta and Bishop’s Lodge, Artist and Hyde Park roads – because of its poor condition.

City officials say Santa Fe does help with snow removal sometimes, and works to help keep medians and sidewalks free of weeds on Cerrillos Road.

The city has raised the issue of acquiring at least some parts of the state highways through town. Santa Fe last entered into a road-related land exchange in 1989 when, in response to rapid growth, the city took over from the state parts of Airport Road, and Agua Fria and Guadalupe streets.

Mayor Alan Webber has raised another issue – trying to match roads with adjacent land use or neighborhood issues.

Some city planners have dreamed a probably impossible dream of turning the segment of St. Michael’s between St. Francis and Cerrillos, where businesses now include car dealerships, gas stations, supermarkets, fast food joints and one of New Mexico’s few remaining Kmart stores – into a narrower road with more landscaping, a classy boulevard feel, and cool urban housing and shops. But the city isn’t free to undertake this kind of radical makeover, or something less ambitious that would change St. Mike’s multi-lane scheme, under the road’s state ownership. While the state views St. Mike’s as just a road, Webber has said, “the city looks at how to make it best for land use.”

The mayor said a couple of months ago that negotiations with the state over St. Mike’s have been held up over what the two sides consider a fair exchange. “Are we accepting a road and also assuming a massive financial obligation?” he asks.

It’s a tricky issue. Is there some revenue stream that would flow to the city, possibly from federal transportation dollars, that would pay for maintenance if Santa Fe obtained portions of state highways?

There’s doesn’t appear to be any major obstacle, though, to dealing with smaller issues.

City officials should push for, and the state should be amenable to, a deal on snow and weed removal and, just maybe, a long-term solution to the messy median on St. Francis just north of I-25 where an untrimmed jumble of Siberian elms and chamisa constitutes the first view of Santa Fe’s streetscape as motorists enter town.

The weeds and ugly medians aren’t a safety issue, though. So let’s just start with this – if the state of New Mexico isn’t going to provide for the safety of drivers in Santa Fe with a timely response to snowstorms, it should provide funding for the city to take over the job.