“The rest stops were built in the 1950s and cleaned in the 1970s.” So commented New Mexico State University economist Jim Peach in a recent talk about the state’s economy. He got a good laugh.
He was talking about New Mexico’s second most commonly asked question (after our official state question, “red or green?”):
How can we diversify the state’s economy?
New Mexicans have been asking that for decades. Everybody thinks somebody should do it but nobody knows exactly how. Even after some big wins, like the Facebook data center and the newly announced Intel expansion, we’re still dependent on oil and gas.
Make the state more welcoming, Peach suggested.
Maybe we are not as hospitable as we think. Some years ago I watched an argument in the legislature, with legislators asking disdainfully why we should spend New Mexicans’ money building bathrooms for tourists, as if we really didn’t care whether they liked it here.
A few years ago I drove through Las Trampas, home of the famous San Jose de Gracia Church, built in the late 1700s, a national historic landmark.
In front of the church was a dirt parking area, and across the way was a small, funky shop, with “La Tienda” painted by hand over the doorway, selling crafts and cold drinks.
Some folks asked the shop owner if there was a public restroom anywhere. The owner directed them into his house. He started a conversation with me.
The high road to Taos, now officially a scenic byway, is 80 miles long without a single public restroom, he said. Politicians stopped by his shop all the time and he’d been telling them for years that a rest stop is needed.
“People stop in Chimayo and eat meat and beans,” he said. “Then they go down the road and what do you think is gonna happen?” He let visitors use his restroom as a courtesy.
I suggested jokingly that he should build a restroom himself and request donations. I guessed he could make a decent return.
Public facilities should be publicly funded and spotlessly clean, telling the world that New Mexico is proud of our high standards. They should show off our art. And they should be on every major road.
The related step to making New Mexico more welcoming is to improve those roads. Imagine having beautiful, well maintained roads, so good that you couldn’t tell that you had crossed the line from Colorado or Arizona, except for a proud “Welcome to the Land of Enchantment” sign. We would think we were in a place that — gosh — knew how to take care of business. So would visitors, who might think more seriously about relocating here and bringing their businesses.
According to the 2021 analysis by TRIP, a national transportation research organization, 55% of New Mexico’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.
TRIP says driving on deteriorated roads costs New Mexico motorists $1.1 billion a year – $767 per driver – in the form of additional repairs, accelerated vehicle depreciation, and increased fuel consumption and tire wear.
This year, our legislature again rejected a bill to raise the gasoline tax and support roadbuilding. We know all the tired arguments that gasoline taxes are regressive, because low-income people drive older cars that use more gasoline.
The TRIP analysis shows that every New Mexican can afford a few bucks more in taxes in return for savings from improved roads. And maybe it’s time to change the method from a tax on gas to a tax on mileage, so that higher income drivers will pay a bigger share.
Right now we have the prospect of the possible Biden infrastructure plan, which no doubt will only provide funding for things we ask for. I think we should get ready to ask for clean restrooms and good roads.
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