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Editorial: Put the pedal to metal on road project funding

The New Mexico Department of Transportation has a running budget of $850 million for fiscal 2015. That sounds like a huge pile of money, doesn’t it? More than a poor, rural state should need, right?

But that has to cover road projects and maintenance in the fifth-largest state in the nation, with 30,000 sprawling lane miles exposed to extreme elements and difficult to maintain. Factor in that around $160 million off the top goes to debt service on old financed projects, including the Rail Runner commuter train. That more than 2,000 people work for the highway department (there are over 300 vacancies, many highway maintenance workers) with salaries that range from around $20K for a receptionist to $113K for the Cabinet secretary, eating up almost $92 million a year. And that road construction is expensive; building just one highway lane mile costs a million bucks.

Suddenly it’s more understandable why local taxpayers are having to shell out tens of millions of dollars to subsidize state and federal road projects, as Albuquerque did with its $50 million share of the just-completed $93 million Paseo del Norte rebuild.

Paseo/Interstate 25, like the Coors/I-40 and Big I rebuilds before it, is an infrastructure game-changer. Highways are essential to bringing commerce and people to and through New Mexico.

So Gov. Susana Martinez’s plan to continue this type of investment makes sound sense going forward. So does HB58, sponsored by Rep. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Taos, to increase the gasoline tax by a modest nickel per gallon.

Martinez says “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.” Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, supports HB58 and says “we need money for roads; I don’t disagree with that at all.”

And while each is wary at best of the other’s plan (the governor apparently doesn’t want to raise taxes and the senator doesn’t want to sacrifice fulfilling other infrastructure needs), together they would put New Mexico’s highways, overpasses and bridges on solid ground.

The governor is pitching a $180 million three-year commitment; Rep. Larry LarraƱaga, R-Albuquerque, a former state highways department boss, would up that to $300 million over five years, which the governor also supports. Both want a focus on large-scale projects, which can optimize leveraging for matching dollars and thus get projects further faster.

As LarraƱaga says, “we’ve got to look at projects that are going to make a bigger impact. We want to look at which ones would create the most jobs.”

Gonzales’ proposal in reality should be seen more as a user-fee than a tax, with the drivers who use the roads helping pay at the pump for their maintenance and construction.

New Mexico’s gas tax of 17 cents per gallon has been in place since 1995 and is one of the lowest in the region. An increase is a necessary complement to the governor’s plan, as few if any local governments besides Albuquerque have the tax base to scrape together sums like $50 million to meet what should be state and federal responsibilities.

Transportation Secretary Tom Church says New Mexico comes up about $250 million short each year when it comes to available money vs. road project needs. Targeting its dollars to big-impact projects, and supplementing them with a nickel a gallon at the pump, would help the state and its economies finally catch up rather than continue to fall further and further behind.

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.