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Rural infrastructure needs studied for Legislature

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Southeastern New Mexico and large portions of the state are most in need of high-speed internet, according to an interim report by a nonprofit that is part of a group studying rural infrastructure gaps for the New Mexico Legislative Council Services.

Jennifer Jackson of Pivotal New Mexico is the project manager for a Rural Critical Infrastructure Needs study commissioned by the Legislative Council Service.

The council has asked for a final report to be completed by mid-December about the lack of infrastructure in rural New Mexico in four specific areas: broadband internet, electric supply, sewer and water. The council is responsible for drafting legislation and doing legal research for the Legislature as well as for other state entities and the executive and judicial branches of the state government.

Jackson said the goal of the Legislature is to have reliable electric, broadband, water and sewer statewide by 2030 and that the council determined the scope of the study.

“Infrastructure, when you think about it, includes a lot of different things,” she said. “Transportation is a huge one, roads. But, for whatever reasons, that wasn’t in the scope of study for us.”

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Pivotal New Mexico is working with the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research, the Grant Plant Inc. based in Albuquerque, and the engineering firm of Bohannan Huston Inc. Jackson said their study and report will present recommendations and suggested action steps to the Legislative Council Services about how local or state governments can address the lack of infrastructure in rural areas, which the interim report describes as counties with 50,000 or fewer people. The final report also will identify potential funding sources for projects intended to close or eliminate the gaps.

Providing information at a Friday remote meeting of the board of directors of the Southeastern New Mexico Economic Development District, Jackson said that Pivotal and its partners are using prior research reports, analyzing census data and interviewing policy and research experts as well as local officials and residents.

Jackson said that she considers the local interviews to be essential.

“Sometimes these experts provide recommendations, and they are perfectly fine recommendations, but there are reasons why on the ground they are not being implemented, whether be it human resources, staffing issues or not having enough people with technical expertise or not being able to take out loans.”

The interim study considers needs at the county level, while the final report will consider needs at the census-tract level, she said.

The interim report showed that internet was the most pressing need for rural areas statewide.

“We have problems throughout the state when it comes to broadband access,” she said, adding that it is the most pronounced need in the southern region as well. “Electrical data is a little bit trickier to pull. We have been working on it. Just the way the data are collected, we aren’t going to be able to get that census-tract-level look for the electric.”

For both drinking water and sewer services, the interim report shows that most people in the state have good access to both, Jackson said, with the exception of tribal populations that often have needs in both areas.

In Chaves County, according to the interim report, 20% to 30% of households do not have internet access, which puts the county in the middle category of available access. The report shows that 74.3% of residents have internet access, with 22% having high-speed broadband access. Less than 1% of Chaves County households lack plumbing for drinking water or sewer needs.

Following Jackson’s remarks, however, Barbara Garcia, representing Cloudcroft, shared that the village in Otero County had to haul in water for about three weeks this summer because it did not have adequate water supplies from its wells and springs. She said the community wants to purchase water rights outside the town, which would then have to be piped into Cloudcroft.

Jackson indicated that part of the reason she was participating in the meeting was to find out about local needs.

Dora Batista, executive director of the Economic Development District, said district staff did an analysis of the the top five requests in the Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plans submitted in recent years by its members, which the group’s website lists as including five counties, 21 municipalities and the Mescalero Apache tribal government.

ICIP reports are required to be submitted to the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration each year if governmental entities intend to ask for state funding for projects.

Batista said that her staff’s analysis indicated that 33% of the requests were for facilities construction, upgrades or renovations. Another 23% were for roads and bridges, and 20% was for equipment. Water and wastewater projects totaled more than 13%. Another 3% of requests sought to obtain water rights. Utility improvements represented about 1% of requests.

Of the facility requests, Batista said, most involved fire, dispatch facilities, detention centers or other public services buildings. The second-largest category was for city halls or government courthouses. The third was for park facilities.

Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.