A new advocate for highway funding in Southwest Colorado – The Durango Herald

Mark Garcia named regional commissioner for state Department of Transportation

Mark Garcia, interim town manager of Ignacio, has been named the new regional commissioner for the Colorado Department of Transportation. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Public servant Mark Garcia is donning another hat in the government scene of Southwest Colorado, where he’s now serving as a commissioner for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Garcia, 58, was sworn in last month and has already hit the ground running in advocating for funding to his district of 13 counties, including La Plata, San Juan and Montezuma.

In a time when climate change is becoming more of a pressing threat, Garcia said in an interview with The Durango Herald he’s looking forward to working in the transportation sector.

“It’s a unique time for sure,” he said. “And I think there’s a lot of opportunities to try to address some of the climate issues in our state.”

In addition to serving as a CDOT regional commissioner, a volunteer role, Garcia works as the interim town manager of Ignacio, where he has worked since 2015. But, he does not plan to take on the permanent position, he said.

Garcia owns Gov-Plus LLC, a consulting company for local governments. He also works with the Monte Vista urban renewal authority and assists with press relations and project management for a variety of local towns.

“I’ve worked for the federal government, state government, county government and now municipal government,” Garcia said. “Municipal work is more meaningful by far. You affect people’s lives every day in the services that you provide.”

Usually, Garcia works on the staff side of government bodies. Now serving on a board of decision-making, he’s looking forward to bringing his staff-level experience to the table.

“I’m excited to work in that capacity with my fellow commissioners, but also to work closely with the regional staff and make sure that they’re getting the support and information they need,” he said.

Before working in public administration, Garcia worked as a mechanical engineer for a private company on ships chartered by the U.S. Navy. The work will inform him in his new role, he said, as so much of infrastructure is based on engineering.

“Having an engineering background allows you to understand the whole flow of the project, whether it’s a new bridge or a new toll road,” Garcia said.

Ignacio Mayor Stella Cox said she’s excited to see Garcia take on the role with CDOT. Since 2015, the town has not found a new town manager to replace Garcia.

“We can’t find anyone to fill his shoes,” Cox said in an interview. “He’s a forthright guy, he’s there for the community.”

Garcia is also knowledgeable and a great problem-solver, said Ignacio Mayor Pro-Tem Alison deKay, in an interview.

“He’s great at advocating for our town,” she said.

Much of the job at the department of transportation is getting feedback from communities about pressing needs in their areas, said Sydny Zink, the previous regional commissioner for CDOT in Southwest Colorado.

The Colorado Department of Transportation is constructing a $98.6 million realignment project of U.S. Highway 550 south of Durango. (Courtesy of Colorado Department of Transportation)

Each area in Colorado has a different priority list in improving transportation structures, Garcia said. Local projects mainly include repairing decaying roads and bridges, as well as realigning U.S. Highway 550 and double-laning roads from Durango to Bayfield because of the high rate of fatal crashes.

But expanding U.S. Highway 160 between Durango and Bayfield is expected to take at least five years to address because of the high cost, Zink said.

Colorado Department of Transportation has identified stretches of U.S. Highway 160 east of Durango that would be suitable for widening. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

A prominent part of the job is advocating for local projects, Zink said. Often, rural areas like those Garcia now represents are overshadowed by busier urban centers.

“You want to plead your case so that people recognize that there are important issues outside the metro area,” Zink said.

But additional money is flowing in to address infrastructure needs – including the new transportation spending bill, Garcia said. The new legislation, signed by Gov. Jared Polis in June, will allocate more than $5 billion for road and transit projects over the next 11 years. Money is taken from increased gas, delivery and rideshare taxes.

“This additional influx of funds is letting us complete those (delayed projects) and move other projects up on the priority list,” he said.

The bill also emphasizes spending on the electrification of roads, a priority Garcia is excited to be a part of, he said.

The state government also hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2030, and transportation is the largest emitting source of pollution in the state.

In Garcia’s first meeting as a commissioner, the group initiated strategies to reduce emissions in Colorado. Tactics include the electrification of roads, expanding access to housing near prominent job sites and expanding public transit.

Kaela Roeder is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a 2021 graduate of American University in Washington, D.C.