Connecting the DOTs with communities

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By Sherry Robinson

In the legislative hopper with more attention-grabbing bills is one that’s a cry for help. Rep. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos, is carrying a bill that’s the equivalent of a suicide mission. In an election year for House members, Gonzales wants to raise fuel taxes to fund 10 major road projects, knowing well that even if it passes, the governor won’t sign it.
Why? Because we’re approaching a point of no return. Our roads are falling apart. The state Department of Transportation has been patching, patching, patching, but that only goes so far.
To some readers, who have nice new roads, this may come as a surprise. But to Gonzales, who sees new deterioration in the road to Taos every time he drives home from Santa Fe, it’s becoming a crisis.
I’ve listened to three transportation hearings this session and the message is alarming.
Last week, Transportation Secretary-designate Tom Church told the Senate Transportation and Corporations Committee that the DOT road fund, supported by fuel taxes, is down by $5.9 million since last year. Blame the economy, which isn’t as strong as we’d like, and blame efficient cars, which don’t consume fuel like they used to.
The department’s debt load is $162 million, which is one-third of its budget. Church explained that the state borrowed money to build all those roads in the last 15 or 20 years, and now it’s time to repay the debt.
“Right now we’re maintaining roads,” he said. “We have 2,400 employees doing chip seals and pavement overlays. Last year, we did a million miles of snow removal.” DOT, like other state departments, has about 10 percent of its positions vacant. “We can make do, but we’ll try to fill positions,” he said. “We’re taking as much operating funding as we can and putting it on roads.”
In a different hearing, state Transportation Commissioner Pete Rahn said, “We can’t keep repairing and not replacing.” By allowing roads to degrade, the state will eventually have to replace all of its roads, a very costly prospect.
The public, Rahn said, doesn’t understand where road funds come from and may assume the federal government will buy us some new roads. That’s not going to happen. The federal government hasn’t raised its fuel tax in years and is limping along on small transfers from the general fund, he said.
Roads are wasting away all over the country, Church said. Ironically, New Mexico still has a better road system than other states.
I’ve been listening to these discussions for several years. The state has three choices:
Direct some general fund money into the road fund. Fuel taxes support the general fund and the road fund, so there’s a legitimate argument for taking some back for road work.
Raise taxes. Lawmakers have tried several times to raise fuel taxes, but the governor has said she won’t sign such a bill. Meanwhile, Wyoming, a red state, raised its gasoline tax by 10 cents, and the world didn’t end.
Build toll roads. This is an option embraced by many states. We don’t like the idea here, but it is a pay-as-you-go solution.
Rahn said the governor is aware of the dwindling road fund, but her State of the State speech contained not a word about transportation.
So here is HB 74. Gonzales, who chairs the House Transportation and Public Works Committee, would raise fuel taxes for the next 10 years to pay for 10 major road projects. Other fuel tax bills in years past have been stillborn.
Economic development and tourism bills are getting lots of attention, but products must be shipped, and tourists must travel. Somebody needs to make the connection between roads and economic development.