Highway maintenance deferred and deferred

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Weeds inhabiting the cracks between segments of the wide entry walk into the vintage 1956 Santa Fe headquarters of the New Mexico Department of Transportation provide a clue.

Maintenance isn’t happening.

When the DOT last starred here, mockery was the mode, provoked by finding that DOT tasks include regulating a seaplane port on Conchas Lake. Then, now and for some years in the past, DOT has inhabited a financial ozone much more important than the seaplane situation.

In a way, DOT’s situation is simple. The department says, here is what we really ought to do for New Mexico’s roads (and a few other items such as airports and the Rail Runner). Then, it says, here is what we can do given the available money. And finally, it says, here is the difference.

Values drive the spending decisions. Needs, meaning issues of public safety, get first attention. Wants, such as repainting those federally mandated colored overpasses, get no tending.

It may be overly unkind to say that their approach appears to be muddling through. However, that’s my sense from DOT executives at the July 16 Legislative Finance Committee session in Rio Rancho and a later briefing by DOT technical types. What LFC members did not hear about is any rethinking of DOT’s job or approach.

To be sure, DOT is caught between several rocks and several hard places. Revenue has been flat for several years and will stay that way. DOT’s budget for the current fiscal year is $835 million, with roughly half from the federal government and half being state money. Federal money goes only to federal roads, such as the interstates or U.S. 285 or U.S. 54. The feds may pay 80 percent of such projects.

That $417 million of state money comes from sources including a gasoline tax. It does not flow through the state’s main operating bucket, the general fund. This different financial channel may be what allows the DOT dilemma to exist outside the revenue/spending conversations revolving around the general fund.

DOT’s work affects all of us, every day. New Mexico has 30,000 “lane miles,” as in road jargon. A mile of four-lane road is four “lane miles.”

“We are basically in the band-aid business,” DOT told the LFC, preserving instead of rebuilding and delaying basic maintenance.

The situation starts with building (or rebuilding) a road to standards, such as being tough enough to carry a certain amount and type of traffic and lasting a certain time, say, 20 years.

To make these dreams come true, cracks that develop in the asphalt must be sealed after three years. Then a new surface, a thin coating, should go on after five years, and so on for the planned life of the road. This sequence was followed into the late 1990s.

Today’s maintenance delays eventually will make reconstruction the only option. Except what about the money? A $123.4 million, or 66 percent, gap exists between maintenance DOT says ought to be done this year and the planned $42.3 million. Keeping stripes on roads is the primary safety function; after all, one must be able to see the roads. With $8.8 million budgeted for this year, the gap is “only” 18 percent or $1.9 million.

The gap grows every year. Maintenance goes to roads with traffic, starting with the interstates. N.M. 485, along the Rio de las Vacas in the Jemez Mountains, loses. The curious situation of U.S. 82 and N.M. 529 in Eddy and Lea Counties hasn’t reached Santa Fe.

And humongous projects aren’t on the radar, such as the estimated $120 million fix of the deteriorated Embudo Channel along I-40 in Albuquerque.

Some rethinking seems in order.