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DOT: Fixing N.M. roads is a matter of policy

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By Harold Morgan

White poles frame the lanes of N.M. 279 at its intersection with N.M. 124 just north of Laguna and form a cluster.
For the first-time observer, the white hilltop cluster is odd: “What in the world is that?” Turn north on 279 and the purpose — if not the rationale — becomes evident. The poles channel traffic, such as it is, through the intersection.
Our years long, nine-figure difference between what ought to be done maintaining and building highways and the money available, as defined by the state Department of Transportation, must be a matter of policy. It has continued so long that it must be on purpose.
Just kidding. I hope.
Within the policy, some things stand out — the ghostly cluster, for example.
One doesn’t just build a road. My sample of the materials from a Transportation Commission meeting is a five-eighths-inch thick book.
Examples of work DOT likes appear in the department’s annual report. While the project descriptions are all happy news, some interesting hints slide in. The 2013 report’s description of rebuilding the I-10/I-25 interchange south of Las Cruces mentions reconstruction of two bridges “to meet current design standards.”
The phrase sounds like one most of us meet — “coming up to code.” The moving horizon of code provides my HVAC service guys a continuing opportunity to sell me things.
Not that the evolution of standards necessarily leads in inappropriate results.
The list of New Mexico’s top 25 “transportation challenges” prepared by TRIP, a transportation industry research group, cites the 61-year-old bridge over the Canadian River on U.S. 54 near Logan as the fifth ranking challenge.
The 736-foot bridge has a design similar to a bridge in Minnesota that collapsed in 2007. The recommended replacement would cost $25 million.
The Minnesota analogy suggests an explanation for New Mexico’s highway complacency. (DOT no doubt disagrees with the characterization; I’m talking about the policy guys.) The Minnesota bridge was on I-35, which carried 140,000 cars each day, the Wikipedia report says. It dropped at rush hour, putting people into the Mississippi River, which always has a lot of water.
The Canadian River often has a little water. Out of sight, out of mind.
The Rio Puerco also sometimes has water, enough so that a couple of years ago, erosion began to threaten I-40 in four places.
“Due to budget constraints, only one of the four identified locations was repaired,” the 2013 report said.
Some new approaches appear.
Something called “a sonic averaging system” allowed using internal crews and saved $78,000 per lane mile on a six-mile preservation project on N.M. 371. Uninformed folks have to wonder, though, why a two-lane road needs 10-foot shoulders in both directions.
Mowing continues in the face of the money issues. The mow price was $2.1 million for the 2013 budget year and $2.6 million in FY14.
Commendably, under Tom Church, secretary since 2012, DOT has starting putting reality into its communications.
The 2014 annual report says, “As a result of budget constraints NMDOT continues to face a choice between investing in roadway preservation and roadway restoration. Increased maintenance costs combined with revenue short falls has forced NMDOT to decide whether to spend limited funds on good roads so they do not become bad roads or bad roads so they do not become failed roads. In many instances, NMDOT is using treatments typically applied as preservation in place of rehabilitation or reconstruction applications to maximize current funding.”
The statement appears on page 21, meaning that legislators, always buried in stuff to read, may not get there.
But under current policies, now we get clusters of poles and we will get “failed roads.”