Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Second of a two-part series.
CARLSBAD – Just before 7 a.m. on a recent weekday, cars and trucks are backed up at the Y where U.S. 62/180 merges with U.S. 285 here in the Eddy County Seat.
A couple of trucks bully their way into the lanes they need as motorists sit through three, four, five cycles of traffic lights.
Steve McCroskey, Eddy County planner, is behind the wheel of one of the vehicles waiting to turn off 62/180 on to 285.
“The traffic has increased so greatly,” said McCroskey, 48, a 1989 graduate of Carlsbad High. “If we had this much traffic when we were cruising (in high school), I don’t think any kid would have gotten home without a wreck.”
John Waters, executive director of the Carlsbad Department of Development, said about 43,000 vehicles pass through this intersection each day and that the population in a 20-mile radius of Carlsbad has gone from 42,000 in 2010 to an estimated 75,000 today.
Those numbers are attributable to a boom in oil and gas business that started in late 2016 and isn’t expected to let up soon.
“There is universal agreement that the Permian (Basin in New Mexico and Texas) will continue to grow in production,” said Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
“There are vast amounts of untapped (resources.) We are going to be busy for a long time.”
Still waiting to get through the light at the Carlsbad Y, McCroskey thinks fondly back to 30 years ago when he drove his 1977 Land Cruiser with the 350 Chevy engine from Becky’s Drive-In on Carlsbad’s Church Street to the Sonic on Canal Street.
“Those times are all gone,” he said.
Milk and honey
Tax revenue from the accelerated oil and gas business has resulted in a state budget surplus, and New Mexico is looking at putting $300 million to $400 million of that windfall into statewide road projects.
Since roads in Eddy and Lea counties are the ones taking a pounding from big rigs hauling oil, water, dirt and fracking sand and towns such as Carlsbad and Jal in southern Lea County are the places choked up with oil and gas industry traffic, many feel most of that road-improvement money should be spent in those counties.
“We’ve got an unprecedented amount of money to spend,” said State Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, himself a long-time oil man. “I think this state Legislature should recognize that we should provide money to this area which is providing all the milk and honey up here.”
“I think the most advantageous place to spend it, because there may be some federal dollars, is on U.S. 285, in Eddy County, from Loving down to the state line,” Scott said.
Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, agrees.
“I think the consensus is that U.S. 285 is the road in most need,” she said. “The project cost is $90 million (for the 22 miles from Loving to the state line). We already have $20 million and (the) House Appropriations (and Finance Committee) is pushing to get the other $70 million.”
Brown said N.M. 128 between Carlsbad and Jal is next on the list.
“It’s not even in design yet,” she said. “But it lacks (sufficient) shoulders, is crumbling at the sides and has heavy traffic.”
She added that an overpass is needed where N.M. 31 intersects with U.S. 285, just north of Loving.
“That’s a bottleneck,” Brown said. “It might take 40 minutes to make a turn there. It’s just a terrible situation. People take risks because they get tired of waiting.”
More lanes please
Lea County Manager Mike Gallagher, 38, said some state highways and county roads in Lea and Eddy counties are in good condition but were not designed for the kind of traffic they are experiencing now.
“A roadway that used to see 900 cars a day now sees 5,000 commercial trucks a day,” he said. “We see that more lanes are needed.”
Gallagher said roads of most concern in Lea County include N.M. 18 from its intersection with N.M. 128 at Jal south to the Texas line and N.M. 128 from Jal west.
But it’s not just highways that need to be tended to, he said.
“The last two years we have allocated millions to upgrade residential roads because people are moving here and need a place to live,” he said. “And we need to maintain our rural county roads up north for farming and ranching while maintaining oil and gas industry roads in the southern and central part of the county.”
Eddy County planner McCroskey is acutely aware of the beatings county roads are taking because of the uptick in oil and gas traffic.
“All the traffic on U.S. and New Mexico highways end up on our county roads, and they were not designed to (Department of Transportation) specifications,” he said.
State road projects are usually funded by issuing bonds or from a fund supported by a gasoline tax and other taxes and fees.
But alternate ways of securing roadwork money are being explored.
Private-public partnerships, in which interested private concerns, such as oil companies, kick in money for road improvements is one such avenue.
Rep. Brown said the Permian Strategic Partnership, made up of 20 major and mid-size energy companies in west Texas and southeast New Mexico, is looking at putting $100 million in oil patch communities, not only for roads but also for water systems, health care, education and housing.
“They are very sincere and very invested,” she said.
Brown herself has introduced a bill in the current Legislative session that proposes the creation of a process that would allow private individuals and companies to donate directly to their county road fund or give all or part of their New Mexico tax return to such a fund.
She said she has also introduced a bill that would create an urgent-needs roads fund, with monies appropriated from the general fund, that would allow the Department of Transportation to respond rapidly to critical roadwork needs such as a deteriorating road bed.
Both bills have been tabled at the committee level, but Brown said she is still hopeful something can be worked out.
“We don’t give up,” she said.
Jeri Strong, Eddy County public information officer and oil and gas liaison, said the county is working on the creation of an Energy Advisory Board, comprised of about 15 people, excluding politicians but including representatives of municipalities, school districts, organizations and the oil and gas industry within the county.
“They will discuss problems, including road conditions, related to growing pains in Eddy County,” Strong said. “They’ll address issues collectively, come up with solutions and advise the (county) commission.”