Insights: Paying the price for better roads in Rio Rancho

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — According to public opinion surveys, Rio Ranchoans agree on at least one thing: Our roads are a mess, whether it’s neighborhood streets, cross-town connectors or state highways.

Cheryl Everett

The city has jurisdiction only over the first two. City councilors proposed and received voter approval in 2016 and 2018 to fund road improvements through general obligation (GO) bonds.

Those projects included High Resort and Rockaway boulevards. With a new city budget year approaching in July, the Rio Rancho Governing Body held a work session April 19 to discuss 2020-21 roadwork priorities and consider how to pay for them.

Most residents’ first concern is: When will my street get fixed? But in the real world, dollars are scarce.

Under the city’s data-driven priority-ranking formula, streets carrying the most vehicles and/or those in most critical condition are the likeliest to be funded. With total reconstruction costs weighing in at roughly $1 million per mile for a major roadway, available city funds don’t go very far.

So the city has historically issued GO bonds focusing mainly on major streets.

The city council’s options for 2020 are simple:

Do not issue any new road bonds, which would forego any additional major road improvements. This would initially lower the average property tax on a $200,000 home by $64 a year.

The bad news? Recent progress on roads would grind to a halt.

Ask voters to renew the current $10.75 million road levy at the March 2020 city election. No tax increase would result. Proposed new projects could include portions of Unser and King boulevards, as well as shorter portions of other connectors.

Propose a higher road bond levy for voters to approve in 2020 – a politically risky move but one that would support more residential and business development that the city desperately needs to be economically sustainable. The city has $5 million in unused bonding capacity, but tapping that source would lead to tax increases.

Discussion of these options could quickly sink into partisan anti-tax/anti-government rhetoric, or start councilors dialing for dollars to spend in their own districts.

And I haven’t even mentioned the water line fix factor. The city has many miles of underground water lines that urgently need repair, which requires tearing up roads over the water lines.

The city has tried in recent years to schedule roadwork on streets that will be torn up anyway for water line work, but an exact match-up is not always possible.

I also neglected to mention the issues around renewing previous public safety GO bonds to fund police and fire vehicles, equipment and facilities.

These are the decisions Rio Rancho’s mayor and council face. Being a city councilor is not easy.

The best councilors – those who look beyond their own re-election – are relatively rare. They’re the ones who ask citizens to pay the price of meeting their own demands.

They and the mayor deserve our support. So does a road bond renewal or increase in 2020.

(Cheryl Everett is a Rio Rancho resident and former city councilor.)