Thursday, August 9, 2012

Feds Are the Ones Requiring Painted Overpasses. NM DOT Has No Repainting Money.

Yesterday, as part of a background conversation for my coming column, the New Mexico Department of Transportation told me that pretty overpasses are a function of the requirement to spend federal money for what is called "transportation enhancements." These include the sculptural overpasses on the new U.S. 285 north of Santa Fe and the painted overpasses on I-25 south of Albuquerque. I think the sculptural ones are cool and the painted ones look dumb.

That's OK, I suppose, but the problem is that maintenance falls to NMDOT which budgets exactly zero dollars for maintaining these pretty things. That means the painted ones won't be repainted, thereby becoming trashy looking over time. Nor will be sculptural ones be fixed when they fall apart, which is happening now, due to the use of poor quality concrete (or something). Spending the enhancement money is part of getting road money. DOT needs the road money, so it does the enhancements.

The enhancements may well enhance, but inherently this derives from someone’s value system. And who, pray tell, might that be? Part of the charade is that communities get to talk about the enhancements and thereby feel good.

It's the old federal carrot-stick (or something like that) bludgeon that grows government.

DOT puts safety as job one (thank you Ford Motor Co.). Safety starts with stripes. That means the gap between the budget and the “ought to spend” is fairly small, “only” 18% as compared to 66% for maintenance. I lacked the time to explore the issue of road stripes disappearing at night and in the rain.

If safety really is job one, then why do some things change after 50 or so years of working fairly well. For example, St. Francis Drive in Santa Fe now has large bright yellow signs at the St. Michael’s Drive interchange proclaiming a “merger area alert” or something like that. (I didn’t write the copy.) The interchange has been in place for decades, merging traffic and all, without signs.

What changed? My guess is that change has to do with sign standards being a moving horizon. There is a thick federal item, I learned—the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, aka MUTCD, that is constantly revised by a group of state people and feds.

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