Spaceport America Hits Bump in the Road

dona_ana_sealPlans to pave a road that would provide more direct access to Spaceport America from Las Cruces have hit a snag over design and budget issues.

Engineers in Doña Ana County did a design for the project, which involves paving 23.7 miles of dirt road between the village of Hatch and the spaceport. However, officials in Sierra County — where 16.7 miles of the paving would be done — don’t like the plan because they believe the road would be too expensive to maintain once paved.

Specifically, Sierra County wants the elevation for the proposed road to be raised, spaceport officials said. But doing that would add an another $6 million, at least, to the price tag of the project, county officials estimated. That’s on top of an extra $3 million that’s already being sought from legislators for recent unexpected costs.

Sierra County’s concerns came about recently after a design for the road was finished by Doña Ana County, which is overseeing the construction, said New Mexico Spaceport Authority Chairman Rick Holdridge. That design was based on an assumption of a $12 million budget — spaceport money that’s been set aside for about four years for the road, he said.

Both counties in 2010 reached a joint agreement with Spaceport America officials over how to proceed with the southern road paving project. The spaceport committed to bear the brunt of the cost, while Doña Ana County agreed to pitch in with in-kind engineering services.

After hearing about the new problems, Doña Ana County commissioners voted Tuesday 5-0 to direct county staff to go back to the table and sort out possible options, based on information presented Tuesday. They asked for the item to be placed on a late February Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners agenda for a final decision about how to proceed.

The only paved road to Spaceport America is from Truth or Consequences, a relatively small town located to the north of the site. Anyone trying to reach Spaceport America from the much larger city of Las Cruces must drive north of the facility to Truth or Consequences and then make their way south again.

The southern road is especially important to the village of Hatch, which will house one of two locations where tourists will gather to board buses for tours of Spaceport America. The other gathering spot will be in Truth or Consequences.

UPDATE: The Las Cruces Bulletin has a bit more detail. It turns out the paving project is already significantly underfunded. Paving a road properly would cost about $1 million per mile, meaning the total cost would be just under $24 million. There are only $12 million in funds available.

A basic road paving project would cover the entire length within the $12 million budget, but it would leave the road open to be washed away during the monsoon season. And this is why Sierra County is balking over the maintenance issues and wants the road raised.

The prospect of Virgin Galactic’s wealthy clientele riding between Spaceport America and Las Cruces on a poorly paved road that could easily wash away on them if they get caught in a sudden storm is a bit ludicrous, especially considering how money was spent on the spaceport and the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building.

Branson’s billionaire BFFs survive the dangers of spaceflight, only to drown on the way back to their hotel in a flash flood because the government couldn’t afford to pave the road properly. That’s not going to go over very well. Definitely not the publicity you want.