Border brouhaha

Border brouhaha – Brief Article

Debbra O’Hara

Senator Domenici secures $1 million to widen the road at Columbus, but the state doesn’t seem to want it.

While Columbus prepares for its annual Raid Day, commemorating Pancho Villa’s invasion of the United States, a budget battle between federal and state officials and focused on the Columbus-Palomas border crossing continues to smolder.

It all started with passage of the Transportation Equity Act 21 (TEA 21), sections of which provide an 80-20 percent matching funding for highway projects within NAFTA corridors at the north and south borders. Welcomed by border states struggling to provide decent highways for transporting NAFTA goods, it has become a source of political dissension, partly because Congress only allotted $140 million a year–but only for five years–to address all of the problems of all of the corridor highways and partly because of conflicting perceptions of need.

To obtain a $1 million for a commercial truck traffic lane at Columbus, Senator Pete Domenici secured funding under TEA 21 and assumed the State of New Mexico would come up with the $200,000 required matching funds for the project: an amount Jim Coleman, director of the New Mexico Border Authority describes as “a pittance.”

Domenici sought the funding because there is currently only one lane of traffic for both commercial and private vehicles coming to and from Mexico, leading to congestion. Commercial truck traffic has more than doubled at Columbus in the past five years. Because the funding was approved specifically for the Columbus project, it cannot be transferred to other projects in New Mexico. If unused, it would revert to the federal border corridor transportation program.

But the state was not prepared to fund the project and had several others in line for application for federal funding, according to Pete Rahn, New Mexico Transportation and Highways Secretary. “The problem with that is the appropriation came out of the blue for us. It put us in the position of $1 million earmarked for a project that is not ready to be developed,” he said. “We are struggling mightily to deliver the projects that are out there.”

Rahn said that those in charge of awarding TEA 21 funds want to disperse money to as many states as they can so they can say they are doing their jobs. If they can give a million dollars to New Mexico, they can give the rest of the money to other states and keep everyone satisfied. But New Mexico has agreed, in order to obtain as much of the pie as possible, to only submit an application for $4 million or more. The approach paid off last year. When New Mexico was asked if it would accept partial funding to complete the final four lane stretch of the Pete Domenici Parkway, the state said no and, instead, received the total amount requested.

Rahn hopes the same will hold true for the state’s current funding request for $4 million toward the $5 million US Highway 54 project. (US 54 runs between Alamogordo and El Paso and carries 41 percent of the volume of commercial truck traffic from Mexico.) Accepting only the $1 million necessary for Columbus would put them out of the running for the larger amount, he believes. But he, recognizes the risk that the stare will receive neither the $4 million requested nor the $1 million earmarked by Senator Domenici.

“We could end up with nothing. We are playing the odds as to what project we need to develop first, as to what is ready to go, and what is the need today,” he said.

Rahn also understands the political ramifications of his choice. “I’ve received a lot of letters from Columbus and Deming. They don’t understand why we don’t accept a million dollars,” he said, adding, “I hate to be in a position where it appears I am not supporting Senator Domenici.”

“What we will do is we will look at what improvement can occur at Columbus,” Rahn promised. Those improvements may cost the state more in the long run if the time period for the federal funding match runs out. After that 100 percent of the cost will be carried by the state.

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