Coalition Seeks Another $20 Million in Public Funding for Spaceport America

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

With the New Mexico Legislature back in session in Sante Fe, the Dona Ana County Legislative Coalition is seeking more than $20 million for improvements to Spaceport America.

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Spaceport America Southern Road Project Moves Forward

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

Doña Ana County commissioners have selected a contractor to pave a dirt road to provide easier access to Spaceport America from Las Cruces and other points to the south of the facility.

County staff said the top bidder in a recent procurement process was Mountain States Construction — and county commissioners selected the company in a 4-1 vote.

The move allows Interim County Manager Chuck McMahon to negotiate a contract to build the 23.5-mile road, which could cost up to $15.2 million….

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority only has about $13 million to $13.6 million to build the road on hand because of some expenditures already tied to the road project, said Dan Hicks, NMSA executive director.

But McMahon said there’s a chance the New Mexico Department of Transportation will pitch in additional revenue to reach the $15.2 million mark. That would allow for the construction of a better road, county administrators said.

But even if the extra money doesn’t come through, the road project still would entail “hot mix” asphalt pavement, a “geotextile” fabric used to add structural stability to the road, two arroyo crossings and fencing, according to county documents. It would have a smaller “base course” — or roadway foundation — than if the extra funding is granted.

County officials declined to put any additional money into the road project to reach the $15.2 million mark, saying they would prefer to have the state provide it.

County Commissioner John Vasquez voted against funding the road upgrade, saying that he had difficulty asking taxpayers to spend more on Spaceport America. County residents voted to increase a tax on themselves to help pay for the $225 million project.

Getting to Spaceport America from Las Cruces currently requires driving north of the facility to Truth or Consequences and then turning around and traveling south. The paved road will significantly reduce travel time.

No End in Sight for Spaceport America Tax

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

The tax increase that Sierra County voters approved in 2008 to support the construction of Spaceport America has no expiration date and no restrictions on the use of excess revenues that might be collected each year, according to the ordinance passed by county commissioners.

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Spaceport America Risks Becoming Even Bigger Money Pit

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal hangar facility (center), Spaceport Operations Center (Left) and “Spaceway”
(Runway) at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

The second installment of NMPolitics.net’s five-part series on Spaceport America dropped today. Funding woes could ‘cripple’ NM spaceport as other states invest in space race

This one deals with financing at Spaceport America. It requires a bit of understanding of the history of how it was funded.

So, here’s the back story: In 2007 and 2008, residents of Dona Ana and Sierra counties approved a quarter cent increase in the sales tax to help pay for the construction of Spaceport America, where billionaire Richard Branson plans to send rich people on suborbital joy rides.

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State Senator Seeks Spaceport America Tax Relief for Local Residents

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal hangar facility (center), Spaceport Operations Center (Left) and "Spaceway" (Runway) at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)
The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal hangar facility (center), Spaceport Operations Center (Left) and “Spaceway” (Runway) at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

New Mexico State Sen. Lee Cotter (R-Las Cruces) has renewed efforts to bring tax relief to residents of Dona Ana and Sierra counties relating to their support of Spaceport America.

In 2007, residents of the two counties agreed to increase their taxes to help fund the construction of the facility, which is located outside of Truth or Consequences. The taxes remain in place to pay off bonds sold to fund Spaceport America’s construction.

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Anderson Updates Dona Ana County Officials on Spaceport America

Spaceport America fly-in. (Credit: NMSA)
Spaceport America fly-in. (Credit: NMSA)

New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) Executive Director Christine Anderson briefed Dona Ana C0unty officials on the status of Spaceport America on Tuesday.

Anderson told commissioners that anchor tenant Virgin Galactic has talked about beginning flight tests on its second SpaceShipTwo vehicle this year, ” so “perhaps” the company will be able to begin commercial flights from Spaceport America in 2016.

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NM Lawmaker Introduces Legislation to Limit Spaceport America Spending

WhiteKnightTwo visited Spaceport America for the first time in three years on Wednesday. Below, you can see a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo on the ramp. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo visited Spaceport America for the first time in three years on Wednesday. Below, you can see a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo on the ramp. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

New Mexico State Senator Lee S. Cotter (R-Las Cruces) has introduced legislation to repeal the New Mexico Spaceport Authority’s (NMSA) power to issue bonds and limit its ability to used tax revenues to support Spaceport America.

Senate Bill 75 aims to remove the ability of NMSA to “issue revenue bonds and borrow money”.

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New Mexico Legislators Look into Spaceport America Finances

WhiteKnightTwo visited Spaceport America for the first time in three years on Wednesday. Below, you can see a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo on the ramp. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo visited Spaceport America for the first time in three years on Wednesday. Below, you can see a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo on the ramp. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

New Mexico legislators spent Monday down in Las Cruces reviewing the finances of Space America. Members of the New Mexico Finance Authority Oversight Committee discovered that more had stayed the same than had changed in recent months.

Here’s a summary of the key points:

  • Virgin Galactic will likely not begin flying paying passengers for at least another 8 months. It’s not really clear how realistic that goal is; much depends on how upcoming test flights using a brand new motor go in Mojave.
  • Local taxpayers are partially on the hook for helping to keep the $218.5 million, taxpayer-funded spaceport operational until Virgin Galactic begins commercial flights. Currently, the $218.5 million taxpayer-funded spaceport is being used to launch sounding rockets and shoot commercials for Land Rover.
  • Operations are being partially funded from excess tax revenues levied in Dona Ana and Sierra counties that could be otherwise spent paying off spaceport bonds or making infrastructure improvements such as paving a southern road to the spaceport.
  • The $14.5 million that authorities have put aside to pave the road isn’t remotely enough to do the do a full paving job.
  • Construction on the 24-mile road – which will provide more direct access from Las Cruces – is likely to begin next summer after the Bureau of Land Management completes its review of the project.
  • SpaceX is about five months from being able to conduct flight tests of its reusable Falcon 9 vehicle at the spaceport.
  • A new, unidentified tenant is expected to begin flights of whatever it flies sometime during fiscal year 2016.

Learn more below:

Virgin Galactic Finds Patience Wearing Thin

Richard Branson chats with David Letterman (Credit: CBS Television)
Richard Branson chats with David Letterman (Credit: CBS Television)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

While Richard Branson’s recent appearances on U.S. TV shows have undoubtedly helped him to sell many copies of his new book, The Virgin Way, the British billionaire unintentionally stirred up a hornet’s nest in the process.

On “The Late Show With David Letterman,” Branson revealed that SpaceShipTwo’s first commercial flight — which he will take with his son, Sam —  has been delayed from the end of this year until February or March 2015 at the earliest.

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Dona Ana County to Mull Changes to Spaceport Education Funding

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building with a security fence around it. (Credit: Alex Heard)
The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building with a security fence around it. (Credit: Alex Heard)

The Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners will be considering how it distributes tax revenues from the Spaceport America project to three school districts at its meeting on Tuesday.

The funds are derived from a 1/4 cent tax hike that county residents approved to help fund development of the $225 million spaceport project. The three school districts receive 25 percent of the tax revenue directly.

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Commissioners to Propose State Take Over Southern Road to Spaceport America

Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America
Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America

Dona Ana County is looking for the state to take over a southern road leading to Spaceport America.

Also Tuesday, county commissioners will vote on a resolution petitioning the governor and transportation department to build a new interchange at Upham, the main exit off Interstate 25 to reach Spaceport America from a southern route.

The proposal also asks the state to take over ownership of the road as a state route and build it out as an “all-weather paved highway.”

The proposed resolution calls on “businesses, business organizations, governmental entities, and elected officials from throughout the region” to join the petition.

The existing 24-mile road is not paved. Dona Ana County has been struggling with how to fully pave it with the limited amount of money that the New Mexico Spaceport Authority has available for the project.

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Spaceport America Seeks Loan for Visitors Center as Road Project Progresses

The mission control room at Spaceport America. (Credit: Alex Heard)
The mission control room at Spaceport America. (Credit: Alex Heard)

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) has approved borrowing $6.5 million to build a Spaceport America visitors center in Truth or Consequences. Meanwhile, Dona Ana County officials are preparing to bid out a contract to pave a southern road that leads to the remote spaceport.

However, the projects won’t measure up to the original plans for them due to funding limitations. The budget squeeze is a result of years of delay in the start of commercial operations by Spaceport America’s anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic.

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Tax Intended to Fund Spaceport America Construction Now Funding Operations

Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America
Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America

The delay in the start of Virgin Galactic flights has forced the New Mexico Spaceport Authority to partially fund operations of Spaceport America from a gross receipts tax originally approved to pay for the facility’s construction. It’s a practice one state senator now wants to end but which the spaceport’s management says is essentially to keeping the lights on.

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Measure to Redistribute Spaceport America Education Funding Advances in NM Legislature

The Terminal Hangar Facility at Spaceport America will house Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America)
The Terminal Hangar Facility at Spaceport America will house Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America)

Eager to convince skeptical southern New Mexico voters to approve a tax hike to help fund the construction of Spaceport America, then-Gov. Bill Richardson promised that the revenues would bring millions of dollars in direct support to local schools.

Voters in Sierra and Dona Ana counties approved a quarter-cent increase in the local use tax, and Richardson kept his promise. The tax has raised $32 million in revenues so far, with a quarter of it — $8 million — going to local schools to fund additional teachers and new programs.

Now, with Richardson gone due to term limits, that deal is in danger of unraveling as legislators from other areas of the state are eying the revenue.

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Spaceports Roundup: SpaceX Buys Land, Kodiak Plans Launch, NM Schools Fear Funding Loss

Artist's conception of the proposed SpaceX commercial launch facility near Brownsville, Texas.
Artist’s conception of the proposed SpaceX commercial launch facility near Brownsville, Texas.

A brief roundup of spaceport news in Texas, New Mexico and Alaska:

Brownsville, Texas — SpaceX has increased its land holdings in the Boca Chica Beach area from 12 undeveloped lots to 72 lots, the Valley Morning Star reports. The company is considering building a private launch complex on the Texas Gulf Coast from which to launch its commercial missions. SpaceX and local officials is awaiting the completion of an environmental review by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Read the full story.

Las Cruces, New Mexico — A deal to provide local schools with funding in return for residents supporting a tax increase to fund Spaceport America could unravel. A state legislator has asked that funds raised for this purpose be considered as part of a larger program that redistributes tax revenues to support schools statewide. Millions of dollars in tax revenues that currently fund Sierra and Doña Ana county public schools are at risk.

Read the full story.

Kodiak, Alaska — The flight-challenged Kodiak Launch Complex has only one rocket launch scheduled for 2014, but it is pursuing three additional ones for future years. “Things are coming in,” said Alaska Aerospace Corp. COO Mark Greby.  “We’ve got people coming in the door now. We’ll get some of them.” The state is eager to see more launches from the spaceport in order to reduce subsidies. Officials are also looking at using Kodiak to support drone flights and monitor launches from other spaceports, including the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia.

Read the full story.