Riding our roads
Driving through Valencia County, it’s almost impossible not to notice the pot holes and the faded traffic-control markings defacing many of the area’s municipal streets, county roads and state highways.
Even though the wear and tear may seem obvious and the solutions may seem simple, patching the pot holes and re-painting the roadways aren’t that easy because the agencies responsible for making those improvements are governed by money shortages and strict protocols for how they do things.
Before Valencia County Public Works Department crews are dispatched to patch one pot hole, unplug one storm drain or repair one traffic control sign along the 456 miles of roads the department maintains, one of the department’s 13 field workers is sent to the troubled area to assess the problem and determine both labor and material cost.
In the past, the department prioritized road improvements projects based on information it received from citizens, said Kelly Bouska, Valencia County’s public works director.
“It has been a reactive process determining the greatest need (according to) where we have the most phone calls, the most issues,” Bouska says. “What we are trying to do is switch to a more proactive maintenance program.”
But Bouska said developing a maintenance program has been the department’s biggest challenge to date. To help facilitate safer, well-maintained roads and streets, the county has adopted the Pavement and Surface Evaluation Rating System.
The system will help the department decide what maintenance program will best serve the citizens of unincorporated Valencia County. An unincorporated area is an area of a county governed by the county laws and not a local municipalities, such as Los Lunas or Belen.
Although Valencia County is made up of several entities, including the villages of Los Lunas and Bosque Farms, when it comes to road repair and maintenance, those incorporated entities are on their own. For example, Bosque Farms, one of the county smaller municipalities, contracts with an Albuquerque engineering firm to help prioritize road work.
Every few months, Abiel Carrillo, a Moltzen Corbin engineer, and the Bosque Farm maintenance supervisor cruise the village’s streets to assess their damage.
Carrillo said during those cruises, they specifically look for a type of cracking known as alligator cracking for its resemblance to an alligator’s back. As an engineer, he said he looks for alligator cracks because they usually indicate larger structural issues.
Bouska said the public works department provides non-monetary support to other communities when it has available resources. But New Mexico law forbids the county to spend money on roads that aren’t county-owned, unless there is a joint powers agreement in place. She said the Valencia County Commission recently tabled an JPA proposal, which would have allowed the county to provide money for Valencia County’s newest city, Rio Communities.
Unlike Valencia County, Los Lunas’s Director of Community Service — the department that manages the villages streets — Michael Jaramillo said the village has always taken a proactive approach in regards to designing streets to handle heavy rains. He said the maintenance and design initiatives paid off during this summer’s record rain.
“It wasn’t too bad. We actually did pretty well,” Jaramillo said. “We didn’t have roads flooded. They drained very well into our flood-control systems.
“If you leave all of your debris on your streets, they end up washing out to these collection areas and then they plug them up and the roads ends up backing up and flooding.”
In addition to keeping up the village’s 80 miles of streets, Los Lunas’ Street Division and its five employees work in conjunction with the New Mexico Department of Transportation to help maintain the three state roads, running through the village.
While the state is responsible for repainting road markings, improving sidewalks and paving streets along state highways 6, 47 and 314, the village must clear weeds, repair lighting and sweep streets and sidewalks.
“They have a really good system where we don’t have to get involved with them too much,” he said. “If we have a major flood, like we had recently, they are definitely out and about, checking to see if our water-drainage systems are working properly.”
Transportation department spokeswoman Manon Arnett said the department works with local governments to make roads conditions more commuter and pedestrian friendly.
“Projects coordinated with the counties and/or the municipalities are in an effort to enhance accessibility, safety and make infrastructure improvements that help to make communities more attractive to residents, visitors and businesses,” Arnett said.
Most of the money a county or city receives to fix, build and improve public highways and city streets comes from the state’s Local Government Road Fund and is allocated through the Legislature. The fund is comprised of money from several sources, including money collected from ID card and driver reinstatement fees, and from a percentage of the state’s gas and oil taxes.
The fund is divided between the six NMDOT district offices, based on the number of miles a district has to maintain. Those district offices then disburse the funds to eligible localities, according to the projects approved by lawmakers.
Through the program, a government can request anywhere between $9,000 to $250,000 to complete road-related projects.
However, there is one catch. The local government requesting the funding must come up with 25 percent of that requested amount, what is commonly referred to as a community match. It’s a requirement that could cause problems for a cash-strapped community’s ability to improve their roads.
But Jaramillo said the village has figured out ways to comply with the match requirement.
“We apply for as many funding grants as we can, and a lot of funding grants have a community match. So what we’ve done in a couple of our budgets, especially with our infrastructure fund, is we allocated and set aside specific monies that will help with the match of those federal and state monies,” Jaramillo said.
Each year, the Mid-Region Council of Governments, the clearinghouse for much of the state and federal road funding, call for all municipalities that belong to the council, including Valencia County and Los Lunas, to submit projects for consideration.
Bouska said this is the first time the county has been able to apply for funds because, up until recently, Valencia County was classified as a rural area, as opposed to a metropolitan area, and therefore ineligible to receive funding.
Bouska said under the new classification system, the county submitted five projects that were all approved for funding during the 2017 fiscal year. Bouska agrees with Jaramillo that the match-fund requirements are somewhat problematic for the county but since the department will not receive any Council of Government funds until 2017, the county can set aside the money it needs to match government funds.
But Valencia’s County Interim County Manager Nick Telles said the money the county gets from both the state and MRCOG is a fraction of what it needs.
“I listened to the conversations in terms of a finite universe of money available and for road projects in Valencia County it’s $1,000,000 for all roads and that is everything state grants and general fund money, all combined,” Telles said.
The $1 million the county receives is then divided up between the county’s five commissioners to disburse for projects within their districts. Considering it cost $300,000, to pave a mile of road, Bouska said the money doesn’t go very far, which means to get large projects completed commissioners can bank money for future use.
Saving the money is the easy part, says County Commissioner Alicia Aguilar. But things get difficult when it comes time to explain to constituents why their roads aren’t repaired.
“I submitted a request for two roads to be repaved,” she said of Amy Road in Meadow Lake and Winston Court in El Cerro Mission.
“I thought they would get repaved this year, but now I am told that funding is in 2014. So, I have nothing for this year. But I do know before I came on board, and this was in December, there were some major roads repaved,” she said.
Belen’s Planning and Zoning Director Steve Tomita said communicating why one road should be repaired over another is one of the biggest challenges when dealing with road repairs.
“Understandably, I think everybody feels that their road is more critical,” Tomita said. “So the most important challenge is identifying what really are the priority roads and being able to explain that to the citizens and residents (as to) why one road is chosen for repair over another. And that is a real difficult task.”
For the past two years, the city of Belen has been negotiating with the federal governments for ownership of the Frontage Road west of Interstate 25 for a pond to catch runoff water during heavy rains.
“Getting transfers of ownership and right-of-ways with the federal highway department is really time-consuming and cumbersome,” he said. “You have to go through an awful lot of different departments. It’s a long process.”
Whether it’s building new roads or repaving old ones, one common problem all municipalities in Valencia County seem to be facing is shortages of manpower.
Both the city of Belen and village of Los Lunas are under hiring freezes, which prevents them from hiring more personnel to help maintain the estimated 300 miles of roads they have; the county has just 13 road-crew workers to maintain its 450 miles of roads and streets.