How about this for a state-line sign? “Welcome to the Land of Enchantment. Warning: Traverse our highways at your own risk.”
Unfortunately, even after several years of cash-flush state budgets thanks to oil and gas, and billions in federal infrastructure dollars available, that sign could/should greet folks driving into New Mexico.
The latest highway drama involves the state’s primary north-south thoroughfare. Damage to the underbelly of the 49-year-old Interstate 25 bridges over the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque was discovered during a regular biannual inspection in November. Traffic, loads, the age of the structure and brittle concrete from temperature variations have been blamed for damage in five piers on the bridges.
These bridges handle a high percentage of truck traffic and average more than 35,000 vehicle crossings daily, so it is concerning the New Mexico Department of Transportation had to shore them up to keep them from failing some months back, then seek an emergency procurement last month because “if this location is not treated expeditiously, the bridge could fail completely.”
Regular semis are still allowed, though oversized/overweight loads must seek an alternate route.
NMDOT has since awarded a $1 million, sole-bid contract to AUI Inc. of Albuquerque, the only contractor that responded to the request for repairs this summer. NMDOT had asked for the emergency purchase to patch the piers because it couldn’t find a local construction company on the state’s preapproved list with time or staff to do the permanent fix. Emergency, sole-bid contracts in the 11th hour are hardly the most economical/ideal method of maintaining roads and bridges.
And New Mexico has a lot of state-owned bridges — 2,978 — to maintain and repair. Around 127 of those are in “poor condition,” according to NMDOT, requiring an estimated $525,223,030 in rehabilitation or replacement.
And that’s if prices don’t go up due to lack of contractor availability, labor shortages and escalating material, fabrication and shipping costs.
Damage to the I-25 bridge structures’ pier caps and bearings is similar to damage on the river bridge at Rio Bravo Boulevard, which had an emergency repair more than two years ago. Jill Mosher, an assistant district engineer for NMDOT, says a $50 million replacement is now $78 million as prices have skyrocketed. That work remains on hold due to a lack of funding.
Failing roads and bridges are truly a statewide problem. Drivers in southern New Mexico will remember for years a sign warned motorists: “US 285 south subject to sinkhole 1,000 feet ahead.” The Carlsbad City Council and Eddy County Commission declared an emergency after a giant cavern was discovered beneath U.S. 285 that threatened to swallow part of the highway and possibly a church, several businesses and a trailer park.
And while an NMDOT spokeswoman explains that bridges in “poor condition” are still safe to traverse, and proactive management and dedicated funding mean New Mexico has “a relatively low number of bridges with a poor condition rating compared to other states,” slapping patches on more than 100 bridges is not a selling point to daily commuters and won’t make New Mexico True’s tourism campaign.
Historically New Mexico has done a poor job focusing its capital money on true capital — i.e. infrastructure — projects. Every year too much money is appropriated to smaller “want” items (in 2022 that includes wrestling equipment and a heavy metal museum) rather than larger “need” items like safe roads and clean water. And far too many projects don’t last the life of the bond that finances them.
It’s an old refrain but an important one: The state should use its capital money to invest in true infrastructure — roads and bridges, as well as water systems and internet access — that will better stand the test of time. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state lawmakers have an opportunity like never before to invest in the state’s hardscape. Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into New Mexico for road and bridge improvement projects as part of the massive $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Joe Biden in November. New Mexico will receive $3.7 billion, including $2.8 billion for road and bridge projects over the next five years. The money can also be used for airport, broadband and water projects.
State coffers are also overflowing with about $6 billion from oil and natural gas proceeds.
The time to invest in our infrastructure is now, while funding is available to make a lasting difference for every New Mexican. Our lawmakers and governor pulled together to fund a three-year, $65 million remediation project of pumping sand and grout to fill the Carlsbad sinkhole. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a general completion of the project last month.
New Mexicans need our lawmakers and governor to do that on a statewide scale so we don’t have to question the safety of the highway or bridge they are traveling.
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.