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NM works to speed up road spending

A sign flashes a warning on U.S. 285 near Loving in Eddy County. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico is preparing to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into improving its roads, but the orange barrels aren’t going to show up right way.

Michael Sandoval, the state’s transportation secretary, said Thursday that some major construction activity – such as renovation of U.S. Highway 285 in the southeast part of the state – won’t start until next year.

Plenty of work is happening behind the scenes in the meantime, he said, including designing and planning projects, seeking bids from companies and awarding contracts.

Lawmakers earmarked $389 million in special appropriations this year to improve the state’s transportation network – with the renovation of highways in southeastern New Mexico a priority to accommodate oilfield traffic.

“We’re doing everything we can to spend that as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Sandoval told lawmakers in a meeting at the Capitol.

The Department of Transportation, he said, is considering whether to seek changes in state law to help accelerate road work.

The department, for example, can now issue design-build contracts – agreements designed to allow construction to begin more quickly – only for projects that exceed $50 million. But transportation officials may ask lawmakers to lower the threshold to, say, $25 million or $10 million.

Other legislative changes also might help speed up construction, Sandoval said.

Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said he is willing to consider changes in the law but that safety must remain a priority.

“We need to get this money put to work,” he said.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said communities throughout New Mexico are waiting eagerly for construction to start – not just to improve the roads, of course, but to inject money into the local economy and get people working.

It will be hard to advocate for more funding in future legislative sessions, he said, if the state runs into trouble spending what’s already been appropriated.

The planned infusion of spending on highways and local roads comes as New Mexico enjoys an oil boom that provided a budget surplus and allowed spending to reach an all-time high. The state’s general-fund budget authorized about $7 billion in spending for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Sandoval said he expects construction to begin by summer 2020 on 22 miles of U.S. Highway 285 starting at the Texas line. The highway is a critical corridor that passes through Carlsbad and Artesia in oil-rich southeast New Mexico.

Transportation officials have called U.S. 285 one of the busiest and most dangerous highways in the state.

Of the $389 million in special appropriations, about $50 million is going to city, county and tribal agencies for local road projects, and about $89 million is to be divided equally among the six transportation regions of the state.

The final $250 million is for major infrastructure projects approved specifically by legislators – including $21 million for U.S. Highway 285 and $18 million for state Highway 404 in southern New Mexico.

In the Albuquerque area, projects include $8 million for Interstate 25 at the Gibson exit, $3 million for Paseo del Volcan and $2 million for the Rail Runner line.

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