Home Local News COLUMN// Three words for lawmakers on spending new money: Roads, roads roads

COLUMN// Three words for lawmakers on spending new money: Roads, roads roads

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Thanks mostly to oil and gas, legislators will have $1.2 billion or more in new money to divvy up in the next session.

After the bruising budget cutting of just a couple of years ago, it’s enough to make legislative finance people giddy. But they’re not giddy. They and we have gotten a lot more realistic about the cycles of state revenues.

There’s much talk about salting money away in reserves and a newly created rainy day fund, and that’s prudent. Beyond that, lawmakers will be awash in suggestions. Of course, that never stopped a red-blooded opinion columnist.

With the ups and down of our revenues, budgeters will have to be very careful of committing money to recurring programs

– even such favorites as early childhood education – because the funding might not be there in the future.

However, this is a fine opportunity to make some one-time expenditures, and they should begin with roads.

In January, TRIP, a transportation research group, released its yearly report. Of our major roads, 27 percent are in poor condition, 20 percent mediocre, 12 percent fair, and 41 percent good. Of rural roads, 28 percent are poor, 25 percent mediocre, 13 percent fair, and 34 percent good.

Such numbers mostly argue for spending on roads, but the trouble with percentages like these is that if the roads in your county are good, you assume everybody has a good road and that the need is less urgent. If your local roads are lousy, it’s your daily experience, it interferes with your local economy, and it’s dangerous.

For example, the last time I passed over U. S. 82, between Lovington and Artesia, I was shocked at the condition of this tiny, patched-up road through the oil patch and the heavy (literally) traffic it carries. With no turn lanes and no shoulders, it has chalked up more than its share of accidents. U. S. 82 is getting belated attention, but we should wonder at the neglect of a road serving the state’s golden goose.

Recently, Steve Pearce, the Republican candidate for governor, proposed a system of toll roads in southeastern New Mexico to serve the booming oil industry. Private companies would finance and own the roads with the goal of relieving traffic bottlenecks in the oil-rich Delaware Basin.

“We have all heard the tragic stories of accidents on our highways in southeastern New Mexico,” Pearce said in a statement. “The roads are overcrowded and stressed beyond capacity, creating an unsafe situation for our New Mexico families and workers.

“People have observed correctly that the state should bear the cost of these roads, but the reality is that the political environment is weighted to the large population centers, and the problem is so severe we cannot wait the years that would be required to solve the problem with public funds.”

This is an intriguing idea. Some states have had public toll roads for many years, but New Mexicans have never liked the idea. Private toll roads are a different animal and need study. As Pearce explained it recently, the heaviest users would pay for the roads, and take some commercial traffic off public roads.

Democratic candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham’s spokesman panned the toll road idea as an “out of touch plan” and said she has plans to rebuild infrastructure, but I didn’t find those plans on her campaign website. Matter of fact, both candidates’ websites are broad, generic and lacking in detail.

This year, lawmakers did a lot of backfilling after emptying every pot of money they could find the year before. In the next session they will use new money to leave the state better prepared to weather future downturns. Spending money on roads represents another kind of preparation that would also make the state safer and more prosperous.

Sherry Robinson is a New Mexico News Services columnist. She can be reached at robinson@nmia.com .

Burkett Shaw
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