News Column

Engineers Give NM Infrastructure a 'C'

Sept. 21, 2012

Kate Nash

New Mexico landscape.
New Mexico landscape.

A new study by the New Mexico chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the state's infrastructure a C grade overall for the condition of its bridges, roads, transit and water systems.

The new study, which will be released Friday, Sept. 21, looked at 10 areas, from aviation to wastewater. The highest grade the state received was a B-minus for the condition of its school buildings. The two lowest grades were a D-plus for both its airports and its flood-control systems.

In 2005, the last time the society graded New Mexico's infrastructure, the state also received an overall C.

Both the governor and other legislative leaders are pledging to work together in 2013 to address the situation.

But one of the biggest challenges to fixing the state's dams, drinking-water systems and trains is finding the cash.

"We have a great deal of unfunded needs out there," acknowledged Paul Gray, deputy secretary for the Department of Transportation's Highway Operations. "It's not just roads and bridges. All of our infrastructure seem to be on the decline."

The state Department of Transportation has identified infrastructure needs of $16 billion over the next 20 years, including $450 million annually for highway construction alone. In the most recent federal funding authorization act, the state received $350 million, up from $280 million historically. But, because of the state's debt-service obligations, only about $145 million is left for construction projects, a reduction of about half, the report states.

When engineers looked at the state's flood-control systems, they found that conditions vary across the state, with the bigger cities having better facilities than those in rural areas. But, about 77 percent of jurisdictional flood-control dams are considered deficient or not in satisfactory condition. (A jurisdictional dam is one which impounds water above the elevation of the natural surface of the ground, creating a reservoir with a capacity of more than 100 acre feet.) And, about 16 percent of jurisdictional dams have a high or significant hazard potential.

Those shortcomings "are expected to worsen over time," the report states.

The state's bridges received an overall grade of C -- including a B for the overall condition but also an F on funding. The report estimates the costs of current repairs at $178 million. More than a third of the bridges have reached the end of their design life.

As for aviation, the report found that only 66 percent of the needed funding for improvements is available, and the "infrastructure components are experiencing a steady decline."

Meanwhile, most of the state's public-transit needs are being met, the study found, but additional funding is necessary to accommodate increasing ridership and to keep public transit as a competitive transportation mode. The stated earned a C-plus for transit.

The state's road system is another trouble spot and earned a C overall. About a third of the fatal traffic accidents in New Mexico are due to roadway deficiencies, the report states. Because of that, the state's roads earned a D in public safety. They got the same grade for funding. While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped the state with nearly $800 million for roads in 2008, the long-range needs are so great that the engineering group gave the state a D in the future needs category.

The federal stimulus money, coupled with cash from a program set up by former Gov. Bill Richardson to put more money into state infrastructure, helped the state some, said Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose. But the needs have only grown.

"That was all fine and dandy, but we've got to contribute and supplement more to fund those roads and maintain the ones we have," he said.

The dearth of funding is not a new problem for the state, and is one that Gov. Susana Martinez has worked to address since being elected.

Her office said Thursday that some of her efforts to better fund infrastructure projects through the capital outlay process have been thwarted by lawmakers. In the 2012 special session, for example, the governor proposed a capital outlay package worth $277 million. The plan included $16 million for repairs to dams, including the Peterson Dam in Las Vegas, $40 million for road improvements around the state, and $16 million for water and wastewater projects, spokesman Scott Darnell said. Lawmakers allocated $137 million and virtually ignored the state's most pressing needs, he said.

For the Legislature's part, Griego agreed there is a need for lawmakers to better work with Martinez. "The time for legislative gridlock is over," he said. "We have to understand that we have a responsibility to our constituents, and we have to continue to move forward for everybody."

Griego also said state officials need to redouble efforts to work with the congressional delegation to secure as much funding as possible. "If we wait 20 years to do this, everything will be dilapidated, and then it will be $32 billion to fix it."

Source: (c)2012 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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