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Governor wants to go big with highway projects

Gov. Susana Martinez is proposing a multiyear program for major highway projects around the state, much like the recently completed Paseo del Norte/I-25 project, above

Gov. Susana Martinez is proposing a multiyear program for major highway projects around the state, much like the recently completed Paseo del Norte/I-25 project, above. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With the ribbon cut on a big-ticket Albuquerque road interchange only weeks ago, Gov. Susana Martinez is calling for state lawmakers to set aside a hefty chunk of money – potentially $300 million spread over several years – for highway repair and construction projects around New Mexico.

The Republican governor says the plan would speed up work on unsafe roads while also boosting the state’s economic prospects.

“Our highway infrastructure serves as the literal foundation for commerce; when we invest in major highway projects, we are creating jobs and making it easier to develop and grow our economy,” Martinez told the Journal in a statement.

The governor rolled out the highway initiative during her State of the State address last week. It is modeled on the Paseo del Norte/Interstate 25 project, a just-finished $93 million makeover that upgraded a critical link between Albuquerque’s east and west sides.

Although the projects that would be undertaken have not been decided, a key House backer of the governor’s plan said highways in southeastern New Mexico’s oil patch, in the Santa Teresa area along the Mexican border and around Taos are all possibilities.

The money would come from the Legislature’s annual infrastructure bond package, which is backed by severance tax revenue from oil and gas production.

Skeptics of Martinez’s road proposal claim it would mean less money for other state infrastructure needs – such as aging state buildings, water projects and more – and say there are other ways to address the state’s dilapidated highways.

For instance, one bill pending in the Legislature calls for a gasoline tax increase of 5 cents per gallon to help pay for highway projects, though that approach does not have the backing of the Governor’s Office.

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, said there is little question some state highways need to be upgraded, specifically citing roads in southeastern New Mexico that have borne heavy truck traffic driven by oil and gas drilling activity.

“We need money for roads; I don’t disagree with that at all,” said Cisneros, vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

But he said a gas tax increase – at a time that prices at the pump are down significantly – might be a better approach.

“This would be an easy out, but it takes from other critical needs,” Cisneros said of the governor’s plan to finance road projects.

Details

As originally pitched by Martinez, the highway plan would call for at least a three-year, $180 million commitment, with the first $60 million in funding available for the fiscal year that starts in July.

A House bill introduced by Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, a former state highways department boss, takes the proposal even further – making it a five-year, $300 million commitment – and has the backing of the Governor’s Office.

The legislation is key to the governor’s plan because it would put the funding pledge into state law.

As drafted, it would call for the Economic Development Department to pick projects each August that would be undertaken for that budget year. The projects would come from a list maintained by the state Department of Transportation.

According to both Larrañaga and the Governor’s Office, the earmarked dollars would likely be focused on just a few large-scale projects per year.

“We’ve got to look at projects that are going to make a bigger impact,” Larrañaga, who is chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, told the Journal this week. “We want to look at which ones would create the most jobs.”

The projects would be spread around the state, though final decision-making authority would likely lie with the Martinez administration.

Choosing which projects get funding could prove a sticking point during the ongoing 60-day legislative session, but the Governor’s Office says the state will be able to leverage more federal matching dollars if lawmakers allow for broader discretion.

The Paseo del Norte/Interstate 25 project was paid for by a mix of federal, state and local funding, a scenario that could be replicated for other projects under the governor’s plan.

Legacy

Highway funding has been a high-profile political issue in recent years in New Mexico.

Both of the governors who preceded Martinez in office – Republican Gary Johnson and Democrat Bill Richardson – launched massive roadway projects financed by bonds that used future gas taxes as the revenue source.

As a result, about 20 percent of state road fund spending – or roughly $160 million per year – now has to be spent on debt payments, Transportation Secretary Tom Church said.

The debt obligations have also forced the state to largely focus on key highway maintenance projects, not new roadway construction or expansion, he said.

Further complicating the picture is the fact the state road fund, which pays for highway projects, has been hit hard in recent years by an economic downturn and largely stagnant federal highway dollars.

In all, New Mexico has had an annual gap of about $250 million per year between available money for road projects and identified needs, Church said.

The gas tax proposal, House Bill 58, sponsored by Rep. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Taos, would increase the state’s gas tax rate from 17 cents per gallon to 22 cents by 2019. The current gas tax rate has been in place since 1995 and is one of the lowest in the region.

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