Alpine city staff to study transportation alternatives

ALPINE — City Manager Erik Zimmer has agreed to take on a study of transportation alternatives as three state and local groups are investigating how to deal with expected congestion when a new highway bridge is completed between Presidio and Ojinaga.

By doubling the bridge from two lanes to four, a big increase in truck traffic is anticipated, particularly along U.S. Highway 67 through Marfa and Alpine and on to Interstate 10 near
Fort Stockton.

Zimmer said this week he and Councilor Rick Stephens will “pull together in service of the community for a plan similar to the Vision Plan, except the individuals at UTSA are not involved.”

The University of Texas at San Antonio and the Sul Ross Small Business Development Center have developed the plan to aid city planning.

Zimmer said the city study also will look into quiet zones for the five Union Pacific Railroad crossings in Alpine. A quiet zone provides ways to prevent vehicles from passing in front of approaching trains, reducing or eliminating the need for the loud train horns through the city.

Stephens told City Council last week that, along with the international highway bridge improvements, the nearby railroad river crossing is being rebuilt, which would cause a lot of new rail traffic along the old rail line, creating two new quiet zones, one at Del Rio Street and the other at Highway 118 North.

He said Texas Pacifico plans to have as many as 170,000 rail cars moving through Alpine and Fort Stockton in the foreseeable future.

Zimmer said the increase in freight rail traffic could mitigate some of the increase in truck traffic. But he had another idea.

“One possibility would be to move the railroad around town, go around Hancock Hill and come back on the Texas Pacifico tracks, he said. “The railroad bed then becomes a one-lane [both ways] bypass for trucks. No need for a quiet zone there.

“Now you only need to put quiet zones at Del Rio and 118 North,” he said.

Area Highway Engineer Chris Weber said that was an interesting idea and the U.P. roadbed through town has plenty of right of way for it.

Zimmer said quiet zones have taken on more urgency since state law now prohibits cities from ticketing trains for blocking intersections for longer than specified.

Some cities across the country, including Pecos, have tried citing railroads for blocking intersections for long periods of time but have had limited to zero success enforcing the citations.

Zimmer and Weber both stressed that all ideas at this point are concepts. Weber said the reason for the U.S. 67 Working Group was to get as many public ideas as possible. Then professionals can begin to narrow them down to the most feasible and study alternatives.

Zimmer also talked about getting railroad crew changes out of downtown. One area generating plenty of complaints over train horns is the Holland Hotel and many businesses along Holland Avenue.

The crew changes at the depot exacerbate the problem. After stopping, it can take ten minutes or more for a train to move through downtown. Without the crew change, they can move about 45 miles per hour, greatly reducing the sound footprint.

A railroad bypass would automatically get crew changes out of downtown.

“It’s all a concept,” Zimmer said. “We want to pull together all the heavy thinkers. We’ll target January for the first meetings. That seems a long way off but it’s coming up quickly.

“We may be completed by summer,” he said. “We’ve got to have feasibility. The first goals would be to set priorities, then move into smaller groups. Then we vote and in the next three to four months, we would work out the feasibilities and seek federal and state funding.”

Weber said Fredericksburg is an ideal example of a transportation plan.

“They wanted to get as much traffic with people who will stop as possible and as little of those that will not,” he said. “But what will happen in 30 years? It will be congested. The growth is not going to stop.

“We have to think long term,” he said. “We can’t keep changing our minds.”

Weber said former Mayor Avinash Rangra early in his term asked about quiet zones “and I gave him some information but told him it was the sixth time I had done that. He said that was before he was mayor.”

But the quiet zone has remained elusive well into his successor’s terms.

“We keep changing our minds every time there is a change on the council,” Weber said. “What happened to the last quiet zone project?

“We don’t think long term, we think in terms of every two and four years,” he said.

Getting the crew changes out of downtown also has come and gone, first a plan for it to be west of the city and later east. But the community still is talking about it.

“We need people, not politicians,” Weber said.

But Zimmer said he is excited about the prospect of a new, serious look at the options and plans to meet with civic groups and others.

“Now is the time to jump on it before they activate the railroad” he said.