Alpine greenlights blocked-crossing ordinance

ALPINE — It’s official: Alpine now has an ordinance preventing trains from blocking street crossings.

After months of frustration with Union Pacific over the company’s decision to block 5th Street through the center of town, city leaders last month considered a new ordinance to stop the blockages, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported. And after a second reading on February 18, the ordinance passed, 4-1.

The city will fine train operators $1,000 if they block the crossing for more than 10 minutes, as well as $100 for each additional minute. “I think we made a good decision,” said Maria Curry, an Alpine city councilmember. She cited safety of Alpine residents and “our past agreement with the railroad,” which had promised years ago to look into and minimize blocked crossings.

Only one councilmember — Ramon Olivas — voted against. In an interview, Olivas pointed out that there were other train-street crossings in Alpine that could be used if 5th Street was closed. He also said he was swayed by constituents who urged the city to continue negotiating with Union Pacific rather than adopting a punitive ordinance.

“I wasn’t all that convinced by what I heard,” he said of the pro-ordinance arguments. “I made my stance by saying, ‘Let’s go back for renegotiations.’”

With a Union Pacific line right through the center of town, Alpine residents and leaders have spent years coping with train blockages. As far back as 1997, Union Pacific promised to reduce delays, including by doing “periodic checks” on wait times and making sure crews were “ready to depart” before they even arrived in town, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported.

The issues went away for a while. But within the last year, Alpine residents say they’ve once again noticed lengthy blockages, including at peak commuting times like 5 p.m.

“It was really obvious when they started doing it,” Geo Calderon, an Alpine resident, said earlier this year of the returned delays, “because it was something they never used to do.” (Calderon is also the records clerk for the City of Alpine but stressed he was speaking as a resident and not in his official capacity.)

It’s unclear what comes next, or what the ordinance will look like in practice. Union Pacific did not respond to requests for comment by press time — including when asked whether they planned to challenge the rules in court.

Rod Ponton, city attorney for Alpine, said the blocked crossings would be handled just like any other traffic violation, with tickets and citations.

“We intend to issue them citations and bring them to municipal court the same way we do anybody else,” he said. “Just as we’d have a driver come to court for a speeding ticket.”

“It’s a major inconvenience to Alpine,” he added. “And it’s really no inconvenience to the train operation” not to block the crossing, he said.

Like other Alpine city leaders, he also cited the strain blocked crossings put on emergency response. Stephanie Elmore, who runs the Office of Emergency Management for Brewster County, previously estimated that blocked crossings can add around five to 10 minutes to response times as ambulances or fire trucks look for another way around.

Ponton said that engineers and train conductors would be ticketed for violations. Asked whether those employees or Union Pacific would be expected to pay any fines, he said: “That’s up to them.”

Ponton also said he had not heard from Union Pacific regarding the new ordinance. “Not yet,” he said. “When they start getting tickets, we might.”

Erik Zimmer, Alpine city manager, has fielded criticisms of the ordinance from Union Pacific and residents. At the city council meeting, one resident suggested that Alpine continue trying to negotiate with the company — a proposal Zimmer found unrealistic.

“There’s a single point of negotiation,” he said. Either Union Pacific stopped blocking 5th Street through the middle of Alpine, or it kept doing so. There weren’t any other bargaining chips he or Union Pacific could bring to the table.

Besides, Zimmer said in a phone interview Monday, Alpine has tried to work with Union Pacific. Alpine offered to retrofit the east side of the intersection, so that Union Pacific workers could exit onto a platform without blocking 5th Street. But the company insisted that disembarking at the current platform was the “safest thing for our people,” Zimmer said.

He says he then pressed the official on this. If it was safer for Union Pacific to use the platform on the west of 5th Street, why had Alpine police and residents noticed that some Union Pacific employees were already parking on the east side and walking across?

“That’s where the conversation stopped,” Zimmer said.

For Zimmer, the train tracks that cut through Alpine are more than an inconvenience. Well into the 1960s, the town was segregated, he said, with Anglos living on the north side and Latinos on the south.

“The rail track serves as that barrier,” he said. Improving access between the north and south sides of Alpine will thus help “transcend the racial divide — and get rid of it.”

Looking forward, Zimmer hopes to see train traffic redirected north of town. Then, he said, Alpine could replace its central tracks with a greenbelt of walking and biking trails.

That dream is still a long way off and would likely require studies and approval from state and national groups like the Texas Department of Transportation. But for Zimmer, the benefits are obvious.

“Now we have this connection with people, and going forward and back into the downtown area becomes easy for residents and tourists,” he said, imagining the possibilities. “And then we see a greater amount of growth and development that doesn’t look at whether you’re north of the tracks or south of them.”