February 16, 2017

State ‘only got about half’ of money needed to fix roads

A quarter of New Mexico’s roads are in bad condition according to a new report from a Washington D.C. nonprofit. And ripped up pavement and bumpy roads aren’t just an inconvenience, they’re also costly to car owners in the state.

On average, bad roads, traffic congestion and poor traffic safety conditions cost Albuquerque drivers more than $1,800 each year, according to the report by the transportation policy research group TRIP.

Released last week, TRIP’s “New Mexico Transportation By the Numbers” report is based on publicly available data from sources like the American Automobile Association, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration.

Albuquerque’s roads are the worst for any city in the state, according to the report, with 34 percent of them in poor condition. TRIP defines a “poor” road as one with “rutting, cracks and potholes” that in many cases is “too deteriorated” to repair and “must be constructed.”

The current state budget didn’t provide enough money to repair all of New Mexico’s roads and highways that needed fixing, the TRIP report says.

“They only got about half the money they need to improve the poor roads,” Carolyn Bonifas Kelly, a spokeswoman for TRIP, said in an interview.

That won’t change in the coming fiscal year, judging by the budget requests from the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

The state estimated that New Mexico needed $657 million for the current fiscal year for highway construction. NMDOT’s current budget, however, includes just $350 million for that purpose, leaving a gap of $307 million. Similarly, the state agency estimated it needed more than $290 million for road maintenance but ended up receiving $158 million, leaving a near $134 million funding gap.

Yet the agency’s total request to state lawmakers for money for the coming budget year of $862 million, which begins in June, is slightly less than the NMDOT budget for current year of $867 million. Other parts of the budget get spend on highway operations, project design and overhead.

The agency’s tendency not to seek out the full amount of money needed for road repairs may be because NMDOT bases its budget requests from available state revenue estimates each year.

Emilee Cantrell, a spokeswoman for NMDOT, did not return phone calls or emails from NM Political Report seeking comment for this story throughout the week.

New Mexico is also, of course, beset with big budget difficulties. This month, the state Legislature passed solvency bills that cut $46 million from school cash reserves, among other sources, to close a projected $80 million deficit for the current fiscal year. A projected budget deficit for the next fiscal year, which begins this July, could be as high as between $200 and $250 million.

New Mexico’s inability to fix its poor road conditions means drivers get hit with more repair bills. Using data from the American Automobile Association (AAA), TRIP puts the average yearly vehicle operating costs for an Albuquerque driver from driving on rough roads at $703.

On top of that, congestion from Albuquerque roads, which TRIP defines as “lost time and wasted fuel,” costs drivers another $886 each year.

Traffic congestion also costs Albuquerque drivers 36 hours of their time every year.

The third cost is related to safety, which TRIP calculates using numbers from the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration. Poor safety conditions in Albuquerque cost drivers another $233 each year, according to the TRIP report.

These safety costs don’t just apply to someone whose insurance rates spiked after an accident. In cities where drivers get into more accidents, insurance companies charge higher premiums to all drivers, Kelly noted.

It’s not clear how costly road conditions in New Mexico or Albuquerque compare on average to other metro areas in other states. For 40 years, TRIP has provided lawmakers and decision-makers with information. But it doesn’t advocate for particular policies or propose specific solutions, Kelly said. Nor does it perform surveys in every state.

But Albuquerque’s drivers fare similarly to those in Texas’ metro hubs of Austin, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston and San Antonio. The average yearly cost to drivers because of road conditions, congestion and safety issues in each of those cities range between $1,600 and $1,900 per driver, according to another TRIP report.