Roads, trains and transmigrantes: A look at TxDOT’s vision for the region

TRI-COUNTY — Whether in the form of transmigrantes, more truck traffic or new train connections, state officials and local leaders have spent years anticipating and preparing for an expected surge in commercial traffic from Mexico.

Last month, the Texas Department of Transportation released the latest version of its Presidio Freight and Train Transportation Plan. At a whopping 91 pages, the document offers a top-down look at the future of transportation in the area, from Ojinaga Municipality (technically a part of the plan’s “study area”) to interchanges and transport hubs in Fort Stockton and Pecos. In total, the agency estimates trade could more than double by 2045, with hundreds of billions of dollars in trade every year passing through the region.

When coronavirus eventually starts to recede from the Big Bend, transit issues will once again become a big topic of discussion and debate. Here are some of the big transportation and infrastructure stories on the horizon, in this year and beyond.

Bypassing Alpine

Increased commercial truck traffic could affect the whole region. But in Alpine, residents have taken a particular interest after officials last year described U.S. 90 through the center of town as a “main freight generator.”

“The last frontier is gone,” Amit Rangra, an Alpine businessman, decried in a letter to the editor. With increased traffic destined for the region, Rangra worried that the Big Bend’s quality of life could “be gone in five years.”

Making matters worse, Alpine has already dealt with headaches from Union Pacific, which owns rail tracks through the city and regularly parks trains across major intersections in the middle of town. Earlier this year, Alpine City Council even passed an ordinance to fine the company for blocked crossings.

At a city council meeting last week, City Manager Erik Zimmer stressed to residents that he and other officials were making sure TxDOT was keeping Alpine’s best interests in mind.

“What does that mean for Holland Avenue?” he asked of the possibility of more traffic on U.S. 90. “What does that mean for tourism through the town, if you have trucks that — instead of passing every minute — could be passing every 30 seconds?”

To alleviate these issues, TxDOT’s plan considers both a rail and road bypass for Alpine. If that’s what Alpine residents want, TxDOT can try to work with the city to make it happen, Chris Weber, a local engineer with the agency, said in an interview.

Still Weber stressed that “each community’s different” and that there have been cases of “communities that were bypassed and did kind of fall off the map.” For that reason, he said some communities have ultimately decided bypasses weren’t for them. Among his examples was Fredericksburg, the famous Hill Country town that recently turned down a bypass opportunity. So did Alpine in the 1960s, Weber said.

Transmigrantes

Transmigrantes are Central American merchants who buy and resell consumer goods from the United States. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Mexico was reportedly changing the designated port-of-entry for transmigrantes to Presidio/Ojinaga, and officials in quiet Presidio city were simultaneously decrying the change and bracing to handle a big influx in new truck traffic.

With the U.S.-Mexico border largely closed to nonessential traffic — and with officials across the world preoccupied — the issue has largely fallen by the wayside. Among brokers, there are rumors that Mexican officials might delay or cancel the Presidio transmigrante route altogether, but Presidio city officials say they’ve heard nothing. There haven’t been any updates in Diario Oficial de la Federación, the Mexican federal registry. Juan Carlos Loera de la Rosa, a senior official in Chihuahua State who’s previously played a role in transmigrante discussions, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

With the location of transmigrante routes dependent on the decisions of Mexican officials, TxDOT has no role in the decision and didn’t have any updates, either. But transmigrantes do, nonetheless, earn a couple mentions in TxDOT’s new report. Their interest in the subject, as the report puts it, is “how transmigrante traffic should be managed” if local drivers suddenly see a sudden surge of traffic on U.S. Route 67.

Still, Weber says that TxDOT plans aren’t depending on any transmigrante plans from Mexico. Instead, the agency thinks creating more passing lanes and otherwise improving drivability on U.S. 67 will help not only future commercial traffic but the motorists already on the road.

“Whether they’re from Central America or Marfa or Dallas, that’s the beauty of those improvements,” Weber said. “They’re quick wins. They’re not incumbent on whether we get another 1000 cars a day.”

More rail

In one of the biggest, but least controversial, transit stories of the year, officials in Presidio city are eagerly awaiting a new U.S.-Mexico train link that they say could bring more jobs and taxes to the cash-strapped town. Although Presidio previously had an international rail bridge, it burned down in 2008, with repair work not even starting until 2018.

While train companies often own their own rail, the Presidio bridge is different: it’s owned by TxDOT. And once the bridge is rebuilt, the agency says it could have big economic benefits in Presidio and beyond.

“This potential increase represents an economic development opportunity not only for the seven-county study area but also for adjacent regions,” TxDOT states in its report. Among the commodities expected to use the new route are cattle, cotton and petroleum products.

Last month, in a letter to Presidio officials, Texas Pacífico — the Mexican company that leases the line — said it had received a grant to “start rail improvement work immediately” and expected to have a functioning rail line by early 2021. Ferromex, Texas Pacífico’s parent company, is meanwhile also working on rail upgrades in Chihuahua.

“It is imperative that rail traffic can begin to flow as soon as it is physically possible to move rail cars over the bridge,” the company wrote in its letter. “We are excited to have the opportunity to play a key role in helping rebuild the Texas, U.S. and Mexican economies as an international freight provider.”

Presidio city officials couldn’t be happier. “We have a port of entry, which makes us unique from everywhere in the region,” said Joe Portillo, the city’s administrator. But even with the next closest port of entry in El Paso, Portillo said Presidio’s was “underutilized,” largely leaving the border town out of the billions of dollars of trade between the U.S. and Mexico each year.

“If you look at the dollar amounts, it’s phenomenal,” Portillo said — and with improved rail in Presidio, he hopes his town can cash in too. “If you had those monies working their way through here,” he added, “That means more facilities, trucking companies, safety companies and storage areas. It will create more jobs.”


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