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State Faces Hefty Shortfall for Highway, Transportation

Sat October 27, 2007 - West Edition

SANTA FE (AP) The state is almost a half billion dollars short of what’s needed for highway and transportation projects approved four years ago, and several legislators say a commuter rail is contributing to the financial squeeze.

Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught was peppered with questions and complaints on Oct. 3 from lawmakers, who worry that a tax increase will be necessary to solve the funding mess. They’re also unhappy that the funding shortfall threatens to delay road projects across the state while the $400 million Road Runner commuter rail service moves ahead without a slowdown.

Faught told the Legislative Finance Committee that an additional $495 million is needed for approximately 90 construction and engineering projects that were approved by the Legislature in 2003. That shortfall is nearly twice as large as what lawmakers were warned about by the department a year ago.

Faught blamed the problem mainly on rapidly rising construction costs and the state receiving less money from the federal government than had been expected. Asphalt costs have risen 92 percent since 2003, she said, and concrete prices have increased 48 percent. The growth of revenues for the state’s highway system haven’t kept pace with rising costs. Taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel and fees on vehicles and truckers are earmarked for transportation.

She defended the commuter rail service that Gov. Bill Richardson has advocated as a way to reduce congestion on highways. She said no delays are expected in an expansion of commuter rail from Bernalillo to Santa Fe, which will cost approximately $250 million.

The rail extension is expected to be completed by the end of 2008. Construction is under way and about 18 mi. (29 km) of track will be built near Santa Fe, with part of it along the median of Interstate 25.

Currently, commuter rail operates between Belen and Bernalillo. It’s costing about $10 million a year to operate and ridership averages 2,500 a day. Operating costs will go to approximately $20 million when service begins to Santa Fe.

Rep. Donald Bratton, R-Hobbs, said commuter rail service for riders will be highly subsidized.

“I’m not sure that’s a beneficial use of expenditures,” said Bratton.

Faught predicted that ridership will increase once rail service opens between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, providing a new commuting option for state workers.

Sen. Joseph Carraro, R-Albuquerque, complained that highway improvements in some parts of the state could be delayed by the funding shortfall but the Richardson administration isn’t slowing down commuter rail or construction of a spacesport in southern New Mexico.

“It’s just wrong,” said Carraro.

Senate Republican Whip Sen. Leonard Lee Rawson of Las Cruces said “the Legislature was deceived” about the cost of commuter rail, which was included in a $1.5 billion transportation funding package enacted in 2003. The rail project was authorized along with the construction of an additional lane on I-25 between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. About $90 million was estimated for the highway widening, but the Richardson administration moved ahead first with commuter rail.

Sen. John Pinto, D-Tohatchi, asked committee members to support requests next year for more money to improve a road that’s a main route in the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico. In 2003, the Legislature authorized upgrades to U.S. 491 from near Tohatchi to Shiprock, but the administration expanded the project to widen the two-lane road to four lanes. According to department documents given to the committee, the state is nearly $178 million short of what it would cost to do all the work.

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