Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Focusing Campaign Energy on Economic Recovery – Before It’s Too Late

by Jack Sullivan, P.E.

The economic recovery plan being formulated by the President-Elect’s economic advisors must have the support and confidence of the American public to succeed. A strategy must be crafted that enlists the millions of people who were energized and empowered during the campaign. They want to continue to actively participate in solving the country’s problems.

Billions, and perhaps more than a trillion dollars will be spent to prop up banks and lending institutions. But the public has not been a part of that process, and is rightfully skeptical about how it will build wealth and stimulate the economy. They are also questioning the fairness of the recovery effort to date.

Stimulus checks, tax cuts, or auto industry and corporate subsidies don’t inspire people to action. To date publicity has centered on loan guarantees and buying stock in failing lending institutions. Notwithstanding the President-Elect’s recently stated initiative to create 2.5 million jobs in the next two years, the grassroots support he had during the election that could be channeled to assist with the recovery will rapidly evaporate.

What then is the blueprint for a sustainable recovery that will energize the rank-and-file who stand ready to take part in the solution? Historically we have relied on building and infrastructure construction to underpin our economy. These may be seen as having too slow an impact. However, an argument can be made that a grassroots, paced economic recovery is just what we need for the longer term.

The Roosevelt New Deal addressed an immediate economic problem, one of massive unemployment, by putting the country back to work on publicly-funded projects. At an estimated 7.5% level next year, our unemployment rate is nowhere near that of the 25%-30% seen during the Depression, so we may not need to invest in large scale New Deal type projects.

To involve the entire country in its own economic recovery, we should initiate a bottom up plan focused on using small businesses to restore our nation’s infrastructure and buildings which have suffered from neglect as a result of the diversion of funds to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The emphasis should be on small and medium sized projects with local and regional impact. This would include water systems, sewer systems, roads, affordable housing, energy conservation, schools, public buildings and other facilities that can be planned, designed, built and managed by small businesses that have lower overhead and will employ local workers. Small business involvement will also ensure that the projects are properly scoped to fit within the fabric of the communities in which they are located.

We must establish economic recovery project criteria and then, using the extraordinary database developed during the campaign and currently in use by the transition team (, solicit and evaluate potential projects that fit those criteria.

Recovery projects can be phased undertakings, but must have strict timetables associated with them. They must also have a restructured environmental review process available, consistent with their potential impact. Not every project could qualify for this fast track, bottom up approach. Those that could, however, would come on line quickly. Having involved the entire country in the identification process, the recovery planners can then turn to the untapped strength of our small businesses.

There are many small businesses throughout our country whose owners are accustomed to long days and long workweeks with modest compensation. They have a personal pride in their product, are civic-minded and would be excited to be a part of a national coalition of professionals that puts America back on track and back on top.

If we involve the public and tap this hard-working, proud and often silent majority of small business owners, we will see a long term, sustained change in the economy, as well as an improvement in the health and safety of our communities. We will also see a positive ripple effect nationwide from the personal spirit and enthusiasm that will be brought to the challenge.

Commissioner Sullivan is a graduate of Georgia Tech and Stanford University in Civil Engineering and Engineering-Economic Planning, and President of a consulting engineering firm headquartered in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sustainability: An Old Story for Modern Times

by Kathy Holian, Santa Fe County Commissioner-elect, District 4

We live in “interesting times”: The interconnected challenges to our supplies of energy, water, and food grow daily. For example, the skyrocketing cost of energy is largely behind the push to drill for oil and gas in Santa Fe County, threatening the water in our aquifers. Increasing competition from Asia spurs rising energy costs, causing the price of food to soar. Climate change affects the whole planet, but it is exacerbated in the Southwest, where precious food and water supplies have become ever more precarious as population soars.

Hard times for people – including people in New Mexico – is nothing new. Recently I read William DeBuys’ book “The Walk” and was struck by the story of the people who first settled Las Trampas, a village about 40 miles north of Santa Fe (then capital of the province of Nuevo Mexico). In 1751, the governor awarded the Trampas Land Grant to twelve heads of families who lived in the poorest barrio of Santa Fe. In those days, the Comanches carried out periodic raids on the city, harvesting animals, women, and children as though they were crops. The motivation behind the Grant was not entirely generous, in that it was intended both to help relieve population pressure in Santa Fe (too many mouths to feed) as well as to provide a defensive bulwark against Comanche raids. Very little is known about the early details of the settlement, other than the story told by the buildings they constructed. Homes were built wall-to-wall, creating a fortified plaza. The adobe church Santo Tomas Apostol de Las Trampas, beloved by today’s tourists, is one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial mission architecture in Northern New Mexico. Since the people were nearly all illiterate, there are no written records of their hardscrabble life, constantly threatened as they were by starvation and Indian raids. Nevertheless, we know the tenacious little community survived.

In 1816, the Trampaseños built a mill outside of their compound area – a symbol of hope. Obviously, one of the most critical factors in the location of the village was its water source, a stream that flows down from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, from which flows the life of the people: their crops grow in the fields irrigated by the acequia diverted from it; their livestock graze in the pastures on either side; and the mill that ground the flour from grain they grew was powered by it. The community’s construction of the mill was the clearest sign that the people in the village had “arrived.” Comanche raids would never again defeat them. The people had prospered in a way they could never have imagined when they were living in their poor barrio in Santa Fe. They were now wealthy enough to feed themselves and sell their flour to their former neighbors in the city.

Shifting to a local, self-sufficient economy is crucial to surviving the growing challenges of the future. But the story of the Trampaseños teaches us that we can actually thrive in the face of difficulties, if we stand united as a community.

Water is probably our most pressing problem in the high mountain desert. Fortunately, water is intrinsically a sustainable, renewable resource, unlike fossil fuels. Unfortunately, our present sources of water – wells and surface water from rivers – are not without limits, including the growing energy costs for pumping. While Buckman Direct Diversion water will be coming on line soon, there are no other major new sources of sustainable fresh water in our future, apart from re-use, rainwater harvesting, and conservation. The great thing about water is that it can be re-used over and over again; hence, new developments must be required to have small-scale shared water treatment facilities that provide re-used water for landscaping. Collected rainwater can also be used for landscaping, home gardening, and with proper treatment, even drinking water. We would do well to encourage these two sources, even in outlying areas of the county that now rely on wells, in order to reduce the strain on water drawn from our aquifers.

These water initiatives can be addressed through County and City land use codes, incentives (such as subsidies for retrofitting older homes and rental properties), and community education. Finally, our community must insure that enough water is available for local agriculture.

With increasing energy costs and increasing degradation of our ecosystem, local agriculture becomes even more critical for our community. Protection of agricultural water rights and prevention of urban sprawl is necessary for local farmers. Moreover, local governments must enact programs that enable food-growers to make a decent living. The County can help farmers by partnering with local banks in making low-cost loans available for new equipment, helping open more local markets (e.g., schools and hospitals), and setting up a cooperative health insurance program for farmers. For our children’s sake, in addition to nutritious locally grown food, their schools should offer programs to train the next generation of farmers.

Self-sufficiency in energy is the third pillar of resilience. By controlling our own community electric grid, we could encourage the use of local sources of renewable energy. Since we now get our electricity from a far-away coal-fired power plant, only 30% of the energy in the coal actually makes it to Santa Fe to do useful work. By guaranteeing generous incentive payments to small companies that produce power locally from renewable sources, a publicly owned electric utility’s energy source would immediately be roughly three times more efficient, and create good local jobs, too. Since a public grid is not beholden to stock shareholders, it can promote conservation without worry about loss of profits.

Moving to a local, more self-sufficient economy in water, food, and energy will require a strong partnership between County and City governments, local businesses, local banks, and, most importantly, the people. People in a community have always relied on each other to survive and even prosper, as we learn from the inspiring story of the Trampaseños.

This article appeared in 2009 Sustainable Santa Fe: A Resource Guide, Earth Care International, November 8, 2008.

Community Is the Alternative to Sprawl

Moving toward Sustainability in Santa Fe County
By Kathy Holian, Santa Fe County Commissioner-elect, District 4

We are facing challenging times, with fossil fuel prices soaring, global warming already starting to be felt, and the threat of oil and gas drilling looming, right here in Santa Fe County. I ran for County Commissioner because I believe that solutions to many of our growing challenges can be accomplished right here at the local level, provided that we work together as a community.

Land use decisions and building code ordinances have great impact on our use -- or misuse -- of water, energy, and other resources. For too long, "planning" decisions made without paying attention to consequences have led to suburban sprawl in Santa Fe County. Sprawl has an insidious impact on quality of life in a variety of ways: it always leads to more use of fossil fuels for transportation; there are few opportunities for efficient use (or re-use) of water; it can cause environmental degradation; often, valuable agricultural land is converted to subdivisions; and, of great interest to anyone paying taxes, construction and maintenance of infrastructure -- notably roads -- always cost more, with older, established areas having to subsidize any new development.

The solution to sprawl is good, comprehensive, regional planning. Plans that encourage clustered community centers, with ecologically-sensitive areas set aside as open space, lead to many possibilities for a more sustainable and enriched lifestyle. A compact development can incorporate water and wastewater treatment systems that encourage maximal water catchment as well as re-use of treated effluent for landscaping and community gardens. A community business center can employ people who live nearby. Every community ought to have -- at the very least -- a grocery store. Moreover, large, contiguous open spaces nearby can provide for physical and spiritual nourishment of the residents.

By focusing on planning for clustered communities, we are really relearning how to organize our lives in a way that our forbears took for granted. A hundred years ago, people lived together in small towns that contained all the services that people needed. In fact, even when I was a child in the Fifties, I remember that every neighborhood had a grocery store. Due to decades of cheap fossil-fuel-based energy, we have redesigned our living arrangements into far-flung suburbs, so that multiple car trips are required every day. We can't afford this way of life any more.

There will be many rewards for changing to a more community-based lifestyle. Most importantly, we will start to feel that we really belong to our community. In addition, changes in the way we structure our communities can substantially reduce our energy use. Ultimately, if every American uses less fossil fuel, ecologically sensitive -- not to mention beautiful -- areas like the Galisteo Basin can be protected from becoming sacrifice zones for our oil addiction.

We need to get started right away on moving toward sustainability in Santa Fe County. If we put the decision off too long, the hill we need to climb will only get steeper.

This article appeared in High Desert News, The San Marcos Association, Fall 2008, p. 5.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Regional Public Transit: Let’s Get Connected!
By Virginia Vigil

Northern New Mexico is in the process of shifting from a transportation system almost totally dependent upon private automobiles to one that is more multi-modal and balanced.
The Rail Runner express will begin service from Santa Fe to Albuquerque in December, and bus service is being expanded throughout the City, County, and region.

This is good news for a number of reasons. Not only will citizens begin to reap the many benefits of affordable public transportation at a time when gas prices are continually rising and carbon emissions are adversely affecting global warming; but this is also a significant step toward greater regionalization of our communities and economy.

It is no secret that many New Mexicans commute long distances to work. Many Espanola residents commute to work in Los Alamos and Santa Fe. A large number of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho residents commute to Santa Fe, while many Santa Fesinos commute to Albuquerque and Los Alamos.

Not only do many northern New Mexicans travel long distances to work, they also travel to shop, dine out, get medical care, attend colleges and universities, and enjoy culture and recreation, including special events, like the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta and Santa Fe Indian Market. Regional transportation provides the essential link to enable all of our residents, young and old, rich and poor, to be active participants in this regional community.

It should not come as a surprise that your local governments are working together to provide affordable regional public transportation. Your elected local officials have long worked regionally in many other arenas, including regional water and wastewater systems, regional solid waste collection, regional economic development planning, and regional cooperation in providing police and fire protection. If anything, it is somewhat surprising that is has taken this long for local governments to form an organization like the North Central Regional Transit District (RTD) in order to meet your regional transportation needs.

Northern New Mexico voters will have an opportunity on November 4th to enact a 1/8 cent increase in the gross receipts tax to support regional public transportation. In Santa Fe, half of the revenues from the tax would go to help operate the Rail Runner train. The other half of the tax revenues would go to support the operations of the Santa Fe Trails Bus System, to expand bus service into the area around Santa Fe Community College, and to improve service to Eldorado, Edgewood, Moriarty, Espanola, and other areas. :

Let’s examine the potential benefits of public transportation, all of which are well documented:

Save Money. Gas prices recently reached record highs and are still hovering above $3.00 per gallon. The true cost of driving a car, according to the IRS, is $.585 per mile. Thus, if a person commutes 25 miles in each direction, it costs $29.25 per day to commute, equivalent to $146.25 per week and over $600 per month. By comparison, public transportation is very economical and its use increases one’s disposable income.

Conserve Energy. Private cars are not very energy efficient, and emit carbon, contributing in large part to global warming. Taking public transportation can help conserve our increasingly scarce petroleum reserves. And all those vehicles on the road generate pollution, including greenhouse gases. Public transportation is a much greener alternative.

Reduce Congestion. Our roads are getting increasingly congested, slowing travel to employment, shopping, and recreation. Every bus replaces up to forty vehicles, freeing up space on our highways.

Increase Safety. Traffic accidents are one of the leading causes of death in New Mexico, especially among our young people. Public transportation is a safe alternative to driving, especially during wintry weather.

Increase Mobility. Our younger and older citizens, as well as many persons with disabilities or low incomes, are unable to drive a private vehicle. Public transportation is a way of leveling the playing field to provide access to education, jobs, shopping, health services, and recreation to all New Mexicans.

Support Economic Development. With the high cost of housing in communities like Santa Fe, much of our workforce must commute long distances to their place of employment. Public transportation provides employers with access to a larger workforce and helps grow our economy.

To achieve these substantial benefits, the actual annual costs to Santa Fe taxpayers would be only $4.5 million per year, just 12.5 cents for every $100 spent on taxable items.

Some opponents have said that the tax is regressive and unfairly impacts those least able to pay. In fact, the tax increase will not affect the cost of groceries or medical services. And much of the tax will be paid by tourists, visitors and residents of other counties and who commute to work and who shop and dine in Santa Fe.

Opponents have stated that the State should pay for all of the cost of operating the Rail Runner. Can we really expect taxpayers in Las Cruces or Raton to pay for a train they will never get to ride?

Some opponents fear that taxes will be raised in the future. But that could only happen if citizens authorize such an increase.

Opponents have argued that the bus service should be offered by the City and County instead of the RTD. This approach has already been rejected by both the City Council and County Commission, which both recently rejoined the RTD after they considered forming their own transit district.

Working together through regionalization benefits all Santa Fe County residents; public transportation is the critical component to make this happen. I hope you will consider the proposed transit tax and how it might benefit you and increase the economic prosperity of the northern New Mexico region. And be sure to vote on November 4th!

Virginia Vigil, Santa Fe County Commissioner, District 2
Harry Montoya, Santa Fe County Commissioner, District 1
Mike Anaya, Santa Fe County Commissioner, District 3

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Commissioner Sullivan Speaks Out About Transit Tax


Jack Sullivan
Santa Fe County Commissioner

A gross receipts transit tax proposition will appear on the November 4th ballot in Santa Fe County which will cost taxpayers over $80,000,000. It is not a vote for or against the Railrunner or any existing transit programs. It is a vote about who should pay the operation and maintenance costs of a state transportation project, and the best way to pay for and manage expanded local surface transit programs.

This tax has nothing to do with the Park and Ride program which serves Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Espanola and Los Alamos. Park and Ride is a New Mexico Department of Transportation program.

A gross receipts (sales) tax is a regressive tax, and a particularly poor way to fund transit programs. It hurts most those who are least able to pay, including seniors and persons on fixed incomes. Unfortunately, the Santa Fe County Commission has no authority over this tax which is being imposed by the North Central Regional Transit District (NCTRD).

Half of the tax would go to support the operation of the Railrunner, although that is not disclosed in the ballot question. The Railrunner is a state commuter rail project which benefits all New Mexicans and, as such, should be operated and maintained by the state, just as other transportation projects are.

The state and the Mid Region Council of Governments say that the money is needed from Santa Fe County taxpayers because federal funds will dry up in 2009. The only funds that will dry up are those that have been expended in the original federal grant for the Belen to Bernalillo route. Close to $4 million a year in federal funding remains available after that once the Santa Fe extension is completed.

Local gross receipts taxes are needed for local County services. This tax sets an extremely bad precedent. The state has unilaterally authorized a major project, and now, through the NCRTD, wants to impose the operation and maintenance costs on others. In other words, we are supposed to raise and care for the baby, even though we weren’t there at conception.

In October 2007 the Governor issued a press release and the Secretary of the NM Department of Transportation told the Metropolitan Planning Organization that the state would fund the operation of the Railrunner. MPO approval was needed for the Railrunner before the federal government would sign off on the project. With this assurance, the MPO approved the Railrunner extension to Santa Fe and the I-25 alignment.

The Administration and Secretary then changed their tune and went to the State Legislature in early 2008 with a bill which would have mandated the creation of a 4-county transit district, funded by local gross receipts taxes, to pay for the operation of the Railrunner. The bill died in the Senate. NMDOT then turned to the NCRTD, which they fund through two major federal transit programs, and encouraged them to mandate a tax on the counties in their district. This constitutes one half of the tax bite voters now face.

The other half of the $80,000,000 in taxes over 15 years would be split 86% to Santa Fe County and 14% to the NCRTD, although there is no agreement currently in place confirming this. This potential concession by NCRTD only came about after the county withdrew from the NCRTD. Having the NCRTD administer any part of Santa Fe County’s transit program raises several red flags:

The NCRTD’s cost per rider per one-way trip for FY 2007 was $42.80, vs. a statewide average of $9.77. This ranks them last out of 23 other rural public transit providers in New Mexico. The NCRTD’s administrative budget is 109% of its operations budget. This means they spend more than 100% of their operating costs on administrative costs.

The NCRTD has not implemented Santa Fe County’s prioritized routes in the Community College District and the Route 14 area, and has provided no transit assistance to the City of Santa Fe. It has spent almost $2,000,000 in federal funds subsidizing uneconomical rural routes and free casino shuttles. It doesn’t even collect fares, saying it’s not worth the trouble. Complaints regarding the one and only NCRTD route in Santa Fe County have been numerous and unresolved. Scheduling, advertising and communication have been poor. This has been documented in testimony to the County Commission by the City’s Transit Advisory Board.

Despite its name, the NCRTD is a rural, not a regional transit district. Its service plan is based on a political wish list, not on demonstrated demand.

In addition, the NCRTD does not have a voting structure that is proportionate to population. The City and County only have 10 of 28 votes on the Board, yet they represent over 60% of the population. Without a one person one vote structure, the NCRTD will retain its rural bias, and may impose future gross receipts taxes, up to a total of ½%, to subsidize its operations without Santa Fe County’s approval.

This is taxation without representation.

Do we need the NCRTD with its high overhead costs acting as a middle man to manage a county transit program?

If the tax is rejected, the state will be sent a strong message that county taxpayers are not in a position to bail out the state and maintain its capital projects in perpetuity, and that government must honor the promises it makes.

In addition, city and county elected officials will be given clear direction to complete the already started formation of a city/county transit district. A locally-administered transit district will be far more economical and responsive to riders’ needs.

Constituents and taxpayers expect their elected officials to effectively manage their tax dollars. More revenue would come to Santa Fe County with a local 1/16% gross receipts tax than would come to the county with the currently proposed 1/8% tax managed by the NCRTD.

This transit tax is a poor investment of more than $80,000,000, and should not be supported.