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State highways face funding squeeze

New Mexico for the first time has a true inventory of the tens of thousands of miles of pavement that crisscross the state, and it shows some roads are in worse condition than previously thought.

Tom Church, the head of the state’s transportation department, outlined the findings of a recent state-of-the-art road assessment during a legislative committee meeting last week. More than 5,800 miles need anywhere from minor rehabilitation to reconstruction.

“That’s all the way from a pothole to structural integrity,” he said.

While the mileage in need of repair doesn’t seem that big when considering New Mexico’s size, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to address those needs thanks to shrinking state and federal budgets and growing debt. New Mexico’s unfunded need for building and maintaining roads will top $450 million this fiscal year alone and the total outstanding debt for infrastructure projects across the state stands at $2 billion, leaving legislative leaders scrambling to find ways to fill the gaps.

“How do we pay for that? That’s the predicament we’re in,” said Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

Orange barrels line U.S. 550. Gov. Susana Martinez has made highway projects a priority. (Susan Montoya Bryan/The Associated Press)

Orange barrels line U.S. 550. Gov. Susana Martinez has made highway projects a priority. (Susan Montoya Bryan/The Associated Press)

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez highlighted highway infrastructure in her State of the State address in January. She wants lawmakers to funnel at least $60 million in bond money to major highway construction projects each of the next five years.

Her argument: Highways are the foundation for commerce.

“When we invest in major highway projects, we are creating jobs and making it easier to develop and grow our economy,” she said in a statement to The Associated Press.

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

Some lawmakers are calling for higher fuel taxes – as much as 10 cents more per gallon – to avoid tapping bond proceeds and saddling future generations with debt.

Senate Finance chairman John Arthur Smith, a fiscally conservative Democrat from southern New Mexico, took aim at Martinez and the two preceding governors.

“I’ve been through too many governors, and I don’t care which party they’re in, they all have a road deal, but they don’t have a road plan,” he said. “We’re in desperate need of a road plan.”

New Mexico is not alone. Lawmakers and governors elsewhere are confronting similar realities in their own states: how to address an aging network of roads, highways and bridges during an era in which federal money for such projects has remained stagnant or declined.

Figures compiled by The Associated Press show the total amount of money available to states from the Federal Highway Trust Fund has declined 3.5 percent during the five-year period ending in 2013, the latest year for which numbers were available. During that span, the amount of inflation-adjusted federal highway money dropped in all states but Alaska and New York.

When adjusted for inflation, New Mexico has seen its share drop more than 10 percent.

A recent road assessment shows more than 5,800 miles need anywhere from minor rehabilitation to reconstruction. (Susan Montoya Bryan/The Associated Press)

A recent road assessment shows more than 5,800 miles need anywhere from minor rehabilitation to reconstruction. (Susan Montoya Bryan/The Associated Press)

Church, the state transportation secretary, said New Mexico highways rely heavily on federal dollars and a substantial amount goes to paying debt from past projects.

Meanwhile, needs in New Mexico’s oil and gas country are on the rise as truck traffic continues. Church pointed to calls for doubling the size of U.S. 82 in southeastern New Mexico, where fatalities have doubled in three years.

Church’s agency has been working to refinance bonds as well as close out old projects and shift remaining balances to other projects. That has allowed the agency to put almost $400 million back to roads over the last four years.

“That’s what we’re trying to do, be as smart as we can with the investments we make,” he said. “But because of our debt, we’re really maintaining what we have as opposed to building capacity.”

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