Larrañaga: Transportation Department ‘Basically Bankrupt’

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Mobility is an essential part of the American fabric. Europeans came on sailing ships. The Spanish folded into 150 years of isolation, but horses, wagons and canals moved people across the continent and filled the middle. Rail, automobiles and planes followed.

Larry Larrañaga knows this well, both from the user side and from the technical side. An engineer, Larrañaga worked his way up the Highway Department, as it was then known, to become secretary. Today he is an Albuquerque Republican state representative with two small ranches near Vaughn, 100 miles away. One day, he attends an interim committee hearing in Truth or Consequences, the next he works the ranches and the next he has meetings in Albuquerque.

The Department of Transportation has problems, starting, for Larrañaga, with the finances — in particular, money spent for the New Mexico Rail Runner, former Gov. Bill Richardson’s infamous commuter railroad.

“Right now we’re in debt almost $800 million dollars… through the year 2027. That agency (the Department of Transportation) is basically bankrupt,” Larrañaga says.

The money has to be paid. There is “no flexibility when it comes to debt.” Today the debt repayment money comes off the top of federal transportation money received by the state.

No one has a financial silver bullet. The idea of taxing mileage via global positioning devices on vehicles, though around for years, “has never taken off” for the obvious Big Brother reasons. That Transportation Secretary Alvin Dominguez even mentioned the notion at the July Legislative Finance Committee meeting I find amazing and clueless. Dominguez’s comment came in response to Larrañaga’s question, “What are other states doing for ways to change transportation funding?”

Theoretical options such as toll roads or high occupancy lanes built by the private sector generate little excitement.

The real options, such as they are, appear to put general fund money back into transportation. Motor vehicle excise taxes formerly went to the department but now go into the general fund, the state’s main pot of operating money. Borrowing money against severance tax income might be possible. However, Larrañaga says, severance tax bonds can go only to projects with at least a ten-year life. In any case, we aren’t building new roads.

The old policy is long gone. That said, “Let’s touch every place” with a good paved road. Our 121,593 square miles offer many places to touch, even if a lot of them are small. Maintenance is the issue now, and, as previous columns have reported, not much maintenance happens these days.

At that July LFC meeting, Sen. Carlos Cisneros, Questa Democrat, asked Dominguez for ideas for “a substantial revenue stream.” Dominguez replied, “I wish I had an answer. We don’t have solutions at this time.” Dominguez did say the department is meeting “continuously with the governor’s office” about finances.

That ball belongs to Gov. Susanna Martinez because the Richardson administration snaked the transportation commission from its department oversight role and the overlapping terms for commissioners that meant continuity.

Previously the commission had power and responsibility, Larrañaga says. “It really worked well. “You take it out of the political side.” Now it is largely advisory.

A few years ago, Larrañaga fought a pitched rhetorical battle on the House floor with the Richardson administration in the person of Speaker Ben Lujan to head off a proposal to make district engineers political appointees. The proposal died. Good work there.

Within all these matters, the state lacks a real transportation plan. The nominal official plan is the sum of the plans for each highway district, Dominguez said.

That doesn’t work. Larrañaga points out that the road from Albuquerque to Roswell goes through four districts. The decisions and the planning have to be system decisions.

But decisions are difficult when you are bankrupt.