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Editorial: Southeastern NM needs lawmakers, governor to pump resources into highways ripped up by the oil boom

“There are shirts going around that say ‘I survived 285.’ Semis don’t slow down. They cut you off. When you slow down to turn, they don’t stop.”

– Southeastern N.M. resident Leo Gonzalez

“There are oil rigs everywhere. The number of vehicles is just madness. … New Mexico has never put money into the road infrastructure as we should have. I drive over into Texas and the roads there are taken care of. We have not had our priorities straight.”

– Southeastern N.M. resident Jim Harris

As the New Mexico Legislature enters its final week of 2019, it is essential lawmakers come together – as they did in 2018 – to address an infrastructure crisis in southeastern New Mexico.

Then it was the Carlsbad brine well, a disaster waiting to swallow homes and highways. Our lawmakers understood that the first responsibility of government is public safety, and they joined forces and put together a $30 million rescue package to help prevent the collapse of the well, created by a now-bankrupt company that extracted salt in liquid form by injecting fresh water into the ground.

Now it is the highways in southeastern N.M. that are a disaster – forget waiting to happen. The oil and gas boom has brought more people, more cars, more trucks, more semis and more tankers to the surface streets in and around Carlsbad, Roswell, Artesia, Jal, Loving and Tatum. And the sheer volume as well as weight and speed of those vehicles have in turn chewed up roads that in many cases weren’t in great shape to begin with.

Wrecks are up. So are traffic fatalities – 17 in Eddy County and 24 in Lea County last year alone. And that’s in rural, sparsely populated areas where traffic deaths should be a rarity – not a twice-a-month occurrence.

Once again, New Mexico needs its citizen legislators to do what they do best – think like the real residents of New Mexico they are and come up with solutions for their neighbors.

Because the billion-dollar surpluses projected this and next fiscal year are thanks to that oil and gas boom, it makes sense for a decent portion of the windfall to go back into the communities that produced it. It’s atrocious that routinely 100 trucks are backed up at stoplights in Jal, that mailboxes between Loving and the Texas state line are consistently mowed down by vehicles swerving to avoid collisions and – above all – that people are regularly dying on these roads. Yes, every one of our 33 counties has road needs. But with lawmakers looking at putting as much as $300 million to $400 million into road projects statewide, this part of the state should be a priority.

Don’t demand government go it alone

And because we are talking long stretches of road chewed up by the oil and gas industry – and it takes $2 million to pave a single mile – it makes sense to take the industry up on its offer of a public-private partnership to help fund repairs.

Lawmakers have tabled HB 201, sponsored by Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, that would have created a mechanism for 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. The 20 major and mid-size energy companies in west Texas and southeast New Mexico that make up the Permian Strategic Partnership want to invest $100 million in oil patch communities. That is as close to free money from the folks responsible for the wear and tear as you are going to get. Members of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee need to put the pedal to the metal and blast that bill out for a floor vote.

Direct vehicle sales taxes to road repairs

Then there’s Brown’s HB 188, which would dedicate the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax to the state road fund, where it belongs. (Sens. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, have a similar proposal in SB 505, as does Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D- Grants, with SB 609. None has made it to a floor vote.) New Mexico’s roads are crumbling in great part because the road fund has been starved, and one of the fairest ways to fund road repairs is through money paid by road users.

And especially given the cost of repairs, it is essential that New Mexico ensures it gets every last penny of federal matching money to cover as many miles as possible.

Get governor to shore up traffic cops

But just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was an extra lane, a wider shoulder, an overpass, a new intersection. When – not if – lawmakers send a roads rescue package to Gov. Michell Lujan Grisham, the dangers will remain on U.S. 285 in Eddy County, N.M. 128 between Carlsbad and Jal, at the intersection of U.S. 285 and N.M. 31 in Eddy County, on U.S. 380 in Lea County – at least for a while.

In the meantime, something’s gotta give now for the drivers and residents in the oil patch. More law enforcement presence would reduce the number of semis and others speeding. Drivers forcing vehicles into ditches and plowing through mailboxes to hit deadlines and cut costs has to stop. As resident Heather Lopez says, “Everybody runs like it is the end of days. Drivers get impatient. Trucks pull out in front of cars. They figure they are bigger and you are going to stop.”

They might be bigger, but Lujan Grisham packs a lot of power in her under-5-foot frame. Here’s a call for her to explore creative ways to get a supplemental law enforcement presence in the interim – incentivizing retired officers, perhaps? – to help keep industry and local drivers safer.

New Mexico government acted before the brine well became a national disaster. With too many lives lost already, state officials need to act now to slow down the traffic in the oil patch while speeding up road repairs and improvements.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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