By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican
New Mexico drivers who have long been agitated, annoyed and just downright angry over the poor condition of the state’s roads can expect a smoother ride in the future.
The Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a massive transportation package that, coupled with money in the proposed state budget, will inject a combined $747.8 million into fixing New Mexico’s bumpy roads.
“This new road capacity is the largest capacity [the state Department of Transportation] has seen in the last 20 years,” Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat who serves as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told his colleagues before the 37-0 vote.
In his opening remarks, Muñoz referenced a report published in The New Mexican ahead of the 30-day legislative session in which residents across the state frequently cited roadway repairs as their top priority for the Legislature.
Muñoz described the transportation package as a prudent investment.
“The current cost of deferred maintenance on roads right now, for every dollar we don’t spend today, costs us $4 to $5 in the future for maintenance and repairs,” he said.
Muñoz said 40% of roads in Albuquerque, 38% in Las Cruces and 34% in Santa Fe are in poor condition, and 201 bridges across the state are “poor or structurally deficient.” He indicated the city of Santa Fe may receive additional funding from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Muñoz said the roadway projects were selected by the Department of Transportation based on need, not political favors, though lawmakers were allowed to weigh in on their priorities.
“Sen. [Steve McCutcheon II] probably gets hit in the grocery store every day by the ice cream section about a pothole or a road that needs to be fixed,” he said, referring to the Republican lawmaker from Carlsbad.
Transportation Secretary Ricky Serna, who was sitting in the gallery during the discussion on Senate Bill 300, said in an interview after the vote his department starts to communicate its priorities to lawmakers during the interim.
“Beginning in June, there’s an interim subcommittee that’s assigned to really understanding the work of the Department of Transportation,” he said. “We start early on. … We do the same with the governor, who was very generous in her [budget recommendation] with a couple hundred million dollars and some other funding for other types of projects, like [electric vehicle infrastructure], wildlife corridors, etc.”
Serna said part of the funding in SB 300 would come from the Department of Finance and Administration “in the form of cash” and another chunk will come from bonds issued by the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority at the direction of the state Transportation Commission.
The bill identifies nine specific projects statewide, including $25 million for the reconstruction and improvement of the interchange at Interstate 25 and U.S. 64 in Raton, $107 million to improve Rio Bravo Boulevard in Bernalillo County and $62.8 million to reconstruct and improve a bridge on Interstate 40 east of Gallup, which Muñoz represents.
“We expect that the funding in Senate Bill 300 would be expended within three fiscal years, beginning with fiscal year 2025,” he said.
Serna said the budget bill includes about $120 million for “ongoing maintenance activities” in each of the department’s six transportation districts, or $20 million for each district, and $100 million for transportation projects lawmakers had a hand in choosing.
Once the budget bill becomes law, “our team will identify where we can get the most bang for our buck,” he said, referring to lawmakers’ road priorities.
Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said SB 300 addresses “some of the most hard hit and most needy roads” in New Mexico.
“I’m excited because as it turn out, one of these major projects will land in my district, so I’m very happy about that,” he said. “It’s a bridge that’s about to fall into the water … almost literally.”
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, lauded the $45 million appropriated in the bill for the reconstruction and improvement of U.S. 380 from Roswell to the Texas state line. He said he’s pushed for improving the roadway, which he called “probably one of the most dangerous highways” he’s ever been on, for years.
“If you’ve ever wanted to experience white-knuckle driving, all you have to do is drive down that highway when the sun’s coming up or going down,” he said. “You really do feel at risk and at danger, and just this last month, I think there was another fatality on that stretch of road, so this is an issue that is extremely important to my area.”
Serna said New Mexicans can expect to see “orange barrels and cones” if the Legislature approves the transportation package.
“We need them to be mindful that with those orange barrels and cones there are workers on the other side of them,” he said. “… More construction zones means us being more mindful that there are moms and dads on the side of the road doing work for our benefit.”
Serna said his department spends $100 million monthly, which is good for the economy.
“That’s money in our communities,” he said. “That’s money for construction workers, so we expect to boost our economy with doing this.”
The improved roads will also “demonstrate capacity for community growth,” he said.
“We’re not just fixing pavement conditions,” he said. “We’re adding capacity and that brings opportunity for New Mexico as a state.”