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City Seeks $46 Million for Paseo, I-25 Project

SANTA FE – Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry made a bold pitch for state dollars Wednesday, asking key legislators for $46.5 million to help rebuild the congested Paseo del Norte-Interstate 25 interchange.

If state funding is granted, the city would match the amount with its own bond money and could begin work on the massive project – featuring a new flyover atop Interstate 25 and other traffic relief – within 18 months, Berry said.

The response from top-ranking state lawmakers? No promises, but we’ll keep you in mind.

“I personally believe that it’s a state responsibility,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, of paying for a new interchange. “We’re going to do what we can.”

Legislators shot down an attempt to include funding for the project in an $86 million public works package passed during a special redistricting session in September. The Paseo del Norte project wasn’t “shovel-ready” at the time, Smith said, and would not have immediately created new construction jobs.

An estimated $130 million in bonds backed by severance taxes will be available for statewide public works projects during the 30-day legislative session that begins next month, according to projections released earlier this week.

While additional bonds could be issued if approved by voters, the Paseo project would still be competing for limited state money.

Berry told lawmakers he will travel to Washington, D.C., in January to meet with federal transportation officials, but said he isn’t optimistic about receiving more federal dollars. About $20 million in federal funding has already been used for design work and to purchase rights of way, he said.

What’s needed now, the mayor said, is about $93 million to complete the most-critical upgrades at the interchange. He proposes the state and city split the cost.

The work would cover flyover ramps from northbound Interstate 25 to westbound Paseo and from eastbound Paseo to southbound I-25. Paseo would also be elevated above Jefferson Street, providing “grade separation” so that traffic wouldn’t have to stop at the intersection there.

The Paseo and I-25 interchange averages about 154,000 vehicles a day and lies near a major employment center, making it a critical spot for improvements, Berry said. Currently, traffic approaching the interchange is backed up each day at rush hour.

Rebuilding the interchange should also draw traffic away from other congested routes that cross the Rio Grande, he said, and improve air quality by reducing the amount of time drivers sit in traffic.

Population growth on the west side of Albuquerque and in Rio Rancho, and the resulting back and forth traffic on the east-west running Paseo, are major reasons for upgrading the interchange, legislators said.

Construction could start within 18 to 24 months of getting the financing in place, the mayor said.

Albuquerque has already set aside about $3 million in its annual budget for the project – enough to make payments on the issuance of up to $50 million in bonds, depending on market conditions, Berry said.

Approval to sell the bonds would require support from at least seven of the nine city councilors, or a simple majority of the council could put the bonds before voters, he said.

“I think (the project) was well-received,” Berry said after his meeting with legislators. “No one is promising anything, but I think we got a fair hearing.”

Albuquerque-area legislators of both political parties are largely supporting the $93 million plan, while lawmakers from rural parts of the state have expressed skepticism about earmarking a large chunk of state funding for an urban project. The next regular legislative session convenes Jan. 17.

Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, said the project would benefit New Mexico by easing traffic congestion and boosting the economy.

“This project isn’t just for Albuquerque or just for Bernalillo County,” he said. “This project serves the whole state.”

In addition, Gov. Susana Martinez’s office has said the governor would support the project if the Legislature approves funding.

However, Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, questioned the city’s funding strategy of using bonds backed by future gross receipts tax revenue.

“If we want to work together, we should do it using sound principles, not gimmicks,” said McSorley, who suggested an increase in the state’s gas tax rate could be used to help cover the project’s price tag.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal