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New Mexico Selects Advisers to Oversee Infrastructure Funds

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has named three officials to oversee the $3.7 billion in federal infrastructure money, which the state will prioritize for broadband, transportation and water system projects.

(TNS) — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday named three new administration officials who will oversee projects funded by $3.7 billion in federal infrastructure money, with a priority of improving broadband, transportation and water systems throughout New Mexico.

The Democratic governor said the money New Mexico is receiving from the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden just signed will pay for improvements the state hasn't seen in a half-century — and that it requires strong expertise for it to be used effectively. Her appointees — Martin Chavez, Mike Hamman and Matt Schmit — are resigning from their current jobs.

"This is all about getting stuff done," Lujan Grisham said at a news conference at the Roundhouse. "And also the opportunity to be really forward — forward about what we have in terms of a productive, positive vision for New Mexico for generations to come."

If managed well, this is enough money to benefit all communities, including tribal, rural and poorer ones that lack access to the internet, decent roads and safe drinking water, she said.

She couldn't give an exact timeline of when the public could expect to see projects materialize but said it would be "pretty immediate."

Chavez, a former mayor of Albuquerque, will be the state's infrastructure adviser and will work with communities to determine priorities for the funding. His new role began this month.

Hamman, CEO of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, will be the state's water adviser. He will pursue upgrades in the state's water systems to ensure they can withstand the effects of climate change.

Hamman, who will begin in January, will coordinate development of a 50-year water plan in response to state research showing climate change's potential dire effects in the next half-century.

Schmit, director of the Illinois Office of Broadband since 2019, will be an adviser in the new state Office of Broadband Access and Expansion. Under new legislation, Schmit will develop a three-year broadband expansion plan — beginning with rural areas that lack internet access — and will start work in December.

Chavez will be paid $143,000 a year and Hamman will receive $140,000, both as members of the Governor's Office.

Schmit will receive $50,000 through June on a contract paid for by the legislative appropriation that is funding the new broadband office.

Lujan Grisham said the plan is to begin with the most urgent needs, such as 200 dams that are at risk of failing.

She was referring to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rating 200 of the state's 500 dams in poor condition and warning that 170 of them could fail with deadly consequences.

A dam that deteriorated is likely to give way in a catastrophic weather event and cause loss of life and property, the governor said.

The price tag for restoring these dams is $300 million to $400 million, and the federal money will cover all the dams' repairs, she said.

"Today is the day we talk about the people who are going to lead and support every single community across the state to make sure that isn't something we ever have to worry about again," Lujan Grisham said.

Chavez said national leaders have ignored the need to improve infrastructure, and it's finally being addressed.

"It has eluded at least the last four presidents; it's a bipartisan failure, if you will," Chavez said. "This is the first major investment we've had in infrastructure in decades, and it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Chavez said he and the governor share a basic goal of funneling the money to projects as soon as possible, adding "it doesn't do any good to anybody sitting in the bank."

But he said the main reason he's on board is because the governor has a vision of transforming the state's infrastructure to benefit New Mexicans for many years, even generations.

"That's what this is all about," Chavez said.

Hamman said it's important to focus on making the state's water resources more resilient as a warming climate increases droughts, making an arid state even drier.

He called it a situation "of extreme concern."

"The governor's process for setting up the 50-year water plan ... will provide the framework for us to get our arms completely around the problems that we're facing," Hamman said.

It will be important to do a thorough reconnaissance of water needs and challenges in all four corners of the state because they vary in different communities, Hamman said. Combining that information with research on how climate change will be felt in different areas will help determine what projects to fund, he said.

Lujan Grisham voiced the need for equity to be built into the improvements — and none exemplified that ideal more than extending broadband to rural areas.

Schmit wasn't present to speak about his broadband plans, but Kelly Schlegel, who will partner with him, talked about how checkered the state's current system is.

Some kids in the state are enduring what Biden spoke of in a speech, of having to sit in a fast food parking lot to get wireless service to do their homework, Schlegel said.

New Mexico is in the bottom third of the country for providing internet access to its residents, and she would like to see it rise to the top one-third, she said, adding the long-term goal is bring internet access to every household in the state.

With this funding, the state has a chance to connect its diverse sectors and communities, which in turn will make the state more attractive to companies and institutions to move here, Schlegel said.

"But everything does have to talk to each other," she said. "You can't just have islands of connectivity. You gotta be able to send data and voice and communications across everything."

(c)2021 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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