Here’s the scenario:
You are tasked with constructing and maintaining the highways that criss-cross the fifth-largest state in the nation and that state has 30,000 sprawling lane miles that are exposed to extreme elements, many in remote areas that are difficult to maintain.
- And building one highway lane mile costs a million bucks, while maintaining/reconstructing a lane mile of a “poor condition road” costs $500,000 to $1.2 million.
- And you have seen your state revenues plummet $18 million in eight years, to $381.7 million.
- And about $146 million off the top goes to debt service on old financed projects, including the Rail Runner commuter train.
Well, then you’ve got a huge task – and just $235 million to work with. Even with federal matching dollars that can more than double that total, you’ve only got enough cash to handle fewer than 1,000 lane miles.
But you’ve already got 30,000 lane miles to deal with. And your state needs more.
With those very real public safety deficits, it’s time to reconsider whether we continue to funnel $140 million a year in motor vehicle excise tax revenue – taxes on the sale of cars and trucks – into the general fund. Those taxes are generated by drivers and should go to maintaining the roads they use.
It’s also a false high ground to eschew increasing the gasoline tax.
As mandated fuel efficiencies climb to a 35 average mpg next year and drivers purchase less gasoline, that revenue stream is drying up. New Mexico has not increased its tax on gasoline since 1993. Consumers now pay 17 cents a gallon. Meanwhile, Texas drivers pay 20 cents and Colorado drivers 22 cents. Utah drivers will pay 29.5 cents come January.
By one account New Mexico needs $730 million in road work yesterday. Before too many tomorrows pass, it needs to come up with a plan beyond a special session to allocate $45 million for road improvements, be it from bond sales or cash reserves.
Legislative Finance Committee chairman Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, points out that “you can’t just keep ignoring the roads.” But not ignoring the roads means making the hard choices needed to dedicate a revenue stream to maintaining and building them.
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.