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Southeast NM seeks a fair share of the oil money

Traffic clogs Green Street in Carlsbad last month. An infrastructure bill passed by lawmakers during this year’s 60-day legislative session includes funding to begin work on a new relief route around the city. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

CARLSBAD – While a steady stream of revenue is flowing north from New Mexico’s oil patch to Santa Fe, some local residents feel not enough money is coming back in the form of state spending.

The sentiment is summarized in a sign outside a Carlsbad diner that reads: “Santa Fe taketh more than it giveth.”

Robert Defer, the CEO of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce, said the ongoing oil drilling boom is positive for the community, but is also creating challenges – including a lack of housing, overfilled hotels and dangerous road conditions.

“I would like to think Santa Fe sees where the dollars are coming from and is building new roads to keep that revenue coming,” Defer said in an interview.

While it might not be happening fast enough to satisfy locals, the state is, in fact, spending big bucks on road repairs in southeast New Mexico.

The $389 million for statewide road projects authorized this year by state lawmakers includes funding for improving the highly traveled U.S. Highway 285 – from around Roswell to the state line with Texas – and additional dollars to start planning a new relief route around Carlsbad.

A Carlsbad Municipal Schools bus waits in traffic near flaring oil and gas wells along Laguna Road in Carlsbad in September. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

In addition, a tax package approved by lawmakers during this year’s session also earmarks an estimated $52 million in additional state revenue from a vehicle excise tax increase to go toward road improvements in Eddy and Lea counties.

Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway recently thanked Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for her support of the southeast New Mexico road projects.

“There’s a lot of work left to do, but we appreciate the significant progress,” Janway wrote in his letter.

The area has also gotten other infrastructure-related funding infusions in recent years, including a 2018 bill that authorized diverting $35 million to $43 million in state revenue over several years to fill in an old brine well in Carlsbad that area officials said was at risk of total collapse.

However, Eddy and Lea counties got just $23 million combined from a $925 million capital outlay package – or roughly 2.5% – that was passed by lawmakers and signed into law by Lujan Grisham this year.

The two counties made up 6% of the state’s population in July 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Meanwhile, not all area residents feel things are moving in the right direction.

Joseph Aragon, who is disabled and has lived in Carlsbad since he was a child, said he has seen the city change over the years.

A truck rolls into a camp south of Carlsbad in September. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“I have seen this town change a lot, and not necessarily for the better,” he said, listing perceived increases in drug use, prostitution and alcoholism.

Other locals cite growing concerns with traffic and public safety.

One downtown Carlsbad worker said there are more people in town but not necessarily more customers in some of the locally owned stores. She also said there’s no bread on the shelves in some grocery stores.

“I just wonder what’s going to happen when it’s all over,” she said.

Carlsbad chamber of commerce leader Defer said the oil boom has led to more dollars flowing into the community, including the construction of several new hotels.

But he acknowledged that not all longtime residents have embraced the new realities brought about by the oil boom, saying, “You’re going to have some people who are going to resist change.”

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