Even though the Río Grande Gorge Bridge on US 64 was a topic of conversation at this year's session at the Roundhouse, the immediate impacts of some legislative action are a primer for future improvements that most people say have been too slow in coming.
Included in the state's budget bill, which was still in negotiations between the house and senate as of press time, is $30,000 for studies at the Gorge Bridge. The Senate also passed Tuesday (Feb. 13) a memorial calling on the state transportation department to continue its efforts toward improving safety at the landmark.
"This sets the stage for next year," said Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Democrat whose district includes Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Taos counties. "We're trying to sew up all the excuses."
The problems at the bridge are longstanding and layered, with more than 40 suicides in the bridge's history and at least five local, state, federal and tribal governments having some control over different parts of the bridge and the areas surrounding it. It has also become the most popular and heavily trafficked tourist site in the Río Grande del Norte National Monument.
The Gorge Bridge Safety Network, along with support from the Taos County Commission and other lawmakers, has pushed for improvements in recent years, including barriers to prevent suicide attempts as well as structural improvements to the restrooms, vending area and footpaths. And the state transportation department hired a firm to take a serious look at the engineering and financial realities of putting barriers on the bridge.
Still, Cisneros doesn't think the state is moving fast enough to enact meaningful changes. "We don't feel we're getting attention from the [transportation] department on this issue. They're not recognizing how critical this is to the community," he told The Taos News Wednesday (Feb. 14).
A bill to fund 24-7 surveillance of the bridge by the state police died in the Roundhouse after it was shown that it would cost twice as much as originally anticipated, or about $288,000 a year.
Cisneros admits the $30,000 allocation is "arbitrary," adding, "We don't want the department to come up with excuses they don't have the money to do a preliminary study."
The approved measures, both the memorial and budget allocation, are meant to signal to the transportation department that more must be done.
Taos County Commissioner Candyce O'Donnell told The Taos News the allocation and memorial are "better than nothing [because] it continues to advance the efforts of the safety network and Taos County to make that area safer."
But it's a big effort in time and money. One estimate by the safety network puts the overall cost of improvements to the bridge and surrounding areas at $3.2 million.
But on a transportation department website about ongoing studies of the bridge, the agency acknowledges there are no funds to follow through with any idea. "Currently, the [department] has no funding for construction of a deterrent system," it reads.
Although O'Donnell is hopeful the governor will sign off on the legislative funding, Cisneros is hedging his bets on the next governor and transportation administrator.
"We're not getting anywhere with this administration, so we'll work on the incoming administration," he said, noting the strategy is "predicated on hopefully getting a more receptive [transportation] secretary and administration."