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NM’s weary roads need a bipartisan gas tax

The country’s transportation infrastructure needs attention at all levels. Our roads and bridges require maintenance and repair, yet the user fees that are intended for this purpose are badly outdated. The U.S. Senate just passed a bill with $287 billion in funding for roads, but with the declaration by the committee chair that increasing the gas tax to pay for it was “off the table.” This, despite the fact that the tax hasn’t been raised since 1993.

It isn’t really a matter of conservatives or liberals on this issue, or at least it shouldn’t be. It doesn’t make sense to cut programs to pay for roads when a user fee like a gasoline tax – and diesel for trucks – is so perfectly calibrated to road wear and tear. Indeed, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., has gathered the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and the American Trucking Association to increase the gas tax, as well as institute other needed improvements to the U.S. transportation system.

New Mexico also needs to raise gas taxes to pay for our roads. We are 47th in the nation in gas taxes. Out-of-state drivers who use our highways are surely very happy to avoid paying the full costs. Since 2013, 31 states have raised their gasoline taxes. Incidentally, it makes more sense to index the tax as a percentage, rather than a flat fee that requires readjustment.

Putting off repairs is also costly. According to the Legislative Finance Council:

“The continued deterioration of New Mexico roads will result in high maintenance costs because road treatments become more expensive with greater deterioration. For example, roads in fair condition typically require treatments costing between $12,000 and $36,000 per lane mile, while roads in poor condition requiring reconstruction cost up to $1.5 million per lane mile. Preventive maintenance averages $15,000 per lane mile per year, preservation activities and minor pavement rehabilitation costs average $180,000 per lane mile, and major rehabilitation and reconstruction can cost between $500,000 and $1.2 million per lane mile.”

The Legislature responded to the call to begin to fix the state’s roads. But rather than raise the gas tax the state chose to raid the nonrecurring surplus. This year almost $400 million in new funding was taken from the surplus, and there are already calls to do this in the next session. These are monies that could have been used for so many state needs, including community water projects, senior centers, schools and so on. Indeed, the state could just save the money, knowing that our state economy is extraordinarily subject to the boom and bust of the oil industry.

To be candid, a bit of New Mexico history is relevant here. Politicians have long memories, even when they weren’t out of elementary school when the event happened. Some attribute Bruce King’s defeat for his fourth term as governor to his support of a gas tax, although voter desire for change is more often cited. It was indeed a campaign issue back then, although research indicates that support for a gas tax does not affect chances of re-election success.

Legislators in both red and blue states have done what was necessary and raised their gasoline taxes. New Mexicans are acutely aware of the condition of our roads and the basic fairness of having those who drive pay for what they use is one that should appeal to our common sense. We should work for bipartisan support for a gasoline tax that keeps our roads safe and ask Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to sign it into law.

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