The torrent of infrastructure money meets the abyss of need

Prosecutors outline the financial case of the campaign against Lev Parnas as the criminal trial begins

Consider that in the recent special session, lawmakers designated $478 million in federal stimulus money for road projects, broadband and airport improvements, among other things, and left $724 million unspent for the coming 30-day session. The federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will deliver $3.7 billion to New Mexico – $2.8 billion in the next five years – for roads, bridges, airports, public transportation, broadband, and water projects. Just in fiscal 2022 the state will get $486.5 million for bridges and roads.

In my decades of Roundhouse watching, I can’t remember a time when so many dollars were headed our way.

Highlights

  • We have bridges in New Mexico that school buses aren’t allowed to cross.

  • It sounds like a torrent of funding, but it would fill a chasm of need. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 30% of the state’s roads are in poor condition, 6.5% of bridges are structurally deficient, 219 dams are considered high hazard, and we need $1.4 billion in drinking water projects.

The Legislative Finance Committee has estimated that about one in five public school students don’t have internet access. It could cost $1 billion to $5 billion to connect most or all of the state’s unserved areas, but for the first time it’s within reach.

For broadband alone, the federal infrastructure bill has some $100 million to start with. Another $43 billion will be divvied up among the states. The stimulus bill has $123 million for broadband, and in this year’s regular legislative session, lawmakers approved $133 million in state money for broadband.

To come back down to earth, we’re coping with worker and supply shortages. How much of this is realistically doable? As Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, said, “We’re talking about a lot of money here. I wonder if we’re putting money in areas (where) we just can’t spend it.”

And where there’s this much money, there’s the prospect for fraud and theft. So I was somewhat relieved that the governor in November appointed an infrastructure czar. Martin Chavez, former state senator and three-term Albuquerque mayor, understands the needs of local governments. A moderate, business-friendly Democrat, he led a successful campaign to preserve Kirtland Air Force Base and started a graffiti patrol.

What you might not know about Chavez is he was more focused on getting things done than on whether people liked him. The city desperately needed more river crossings, but 20 years of bickering had settled nothing. Chavez worried that his town was becoming two Albuquerques – one on the west side and one on the east side of the Rio Grande. A proposed bridge required taking down an old cottonwood near the river, and the tree had become a line in the sand between environmentalists and bridge supporters. At 4 a.m. city crews showed up and cut down the tree in the right of way, launching the needed bridge. Progressives are still irked.

His official title is “infrastructure advisor,” and he’s assigned to the Governor’s Office. He will work with communities “to determine priorities for billions of dollars in federal infrastructure funding,” according to a news release. Two other appointed advisors are Mike Hamman, the state’s water advisor, and Matt Schmit, broadband advisor. What I like about these appointments is the accountability. Money won’t just disappear into the marsh of state government. Somebody will be tracking every dollar, I hope, and see that spending accomplishes what it’s supposed to.