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State transportation crews tasked with maintaining and upgrading 31,000 lane miles of roadway are increasingly caught up in a trashier chore. Picking up rubbish.

Up to 90,000 work hours are dedicated to the job each year, at a cost of about $3.2 million, Rick Padilla, executive director of highway operations for the New Mexico Department of Transportation, told lawmakers Thursday. “It’s one of the areas that is extremely demoralizing to maintenance crews,” Padilla said, speaking during a presentation to the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee. Crews will go out and clean up an interchange, he said, and “two weeks later, it’s like we were never there.”

Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, who is vice chairman of the committee, said he’s seen the eyesore of littered highways worsen year after year. “Everywhere you stop at an off-ramp or an on-ramp, there’s trash everywhere — rum bottles, hypodermic needles,” Garcia said. “That’s a big concern to me, and that’s got to be a big, big cost to the state to clean this stuff up.”

Funding to keep New Mexico highways clean is one of many needs for the Department of Transportation, which is requesting a budget for the next fiscal year with a nearly 1 percent decrease in spending compared to the current year. The agency is contending with an aging fleet of vehicles as it strives to ensure the state’s roads are in safe shape by filling potholes and providing fresh stripes and signage. 

The proposed  $981.1 million budget for fiscal year 2022 would include more than $200 million for roadwork. But officials raised questions about whether the funding would be sufficient. “Our interstates are falling apart,” said Trent Doolittle, an engineer for the department’s District 6, in the southwestern part of the state. He told the committee his district alone has well over $110 million in unfunded projects. Some stretches of the interstate have “reached the end of their life,” he said.

Transportation Department officials spoke of their recent success in upgrading the state’s 3,000 bridges, working on inner-city road projects in places like Las Vegas and maintaining electronic signage along routes. Cabinet Secretary Michael Sandoval said a new initiative to place security guards at three state rest stops — including one in Taos near the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge — has cut down on vandalism, theft and possibly suicide attempts.

Guards at the bridge have called police for assistance with several people who showed up early in the morning, contemplating whether to take their own lives, he said. But Sandoval said road maintenance is falling behind. He compared upkeep of roadways to that of a vehicle. “You can get 50,000 miles out of a car or 200,000, 300,000 miles out of it,” he said in an interview after the hearing. “It depends on how often and well you maintain it — changing the oil, tuneups, changing the tires.”

Similarly, he said, good highway upkeep should be done “every five, 10 years. Some of that has not been done in a while.” There are some areas of Interstate 10 where the “pavement is falling apart,” Sandoval said. 

Last year, he said, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state legislators gave the department an additional $535 million “to make a dent in some of those areas.” His department’s proposed budget includes somewhere between $200 million and $300 million for road construction and upkeep, he said. “The more money we can put into our roads, the better,” he said.

Sandoval also spoke of an increase in litter on the state’s roadsides. “Litter is an ongoing problem,” he said, adding he recently saw a motorist throw a McDonald’s bag of trash out of the window as the vehicle was moving. “How do you prevent that behavior?” he said. 

Garcia said he’s seen a similar lack of respect for the state’s roads from some truckers and travelers — who, he said, seem to view entrance and exit lanes off major highways as their own personal dumpster. 

“To me, it says we’re a trashy state,” he said.

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