September 30, 2020 618 PM
ALPINE — Earlier this year, Alpine City Council passed an ordinance to fine train companies for blocked crossings. Union Pacific was regularly parking its trains in the middle of town, city officials said, creating traffic headaches and hindering emergency response times.
Now, the company wants to kill that ordinance in federal court. In a complaint, the company argues that train traffic is regulated at the federal level, and that therefore Alpine has no business telling it what to do.
The lawsuit, which was filed in a Pecos court last Thursday, names the city of Alpine and its attorney, Rod Ponton, as defendants. It asks the court to keep Alpine city officials from imposing fines on the company, and to declare Alpine’s ordinance “void and unenforceable” under the Federal Railroad Safety Act and other federal laws.
Union Pacific, whose train tracks cut across virtually every major north-south thoroughfare in Alpine, has for decades squabbled over these right-of-way issues with Alpine residents. But until recently, the city and train company had reached a truce.
In the late 1990s, the company promised the city it would do “periodic checks” on wait times and “review” concerns about “lengthy blocked crossings in the downtown area,” according to public records from that era. As a sign of cooling hostilities, the then-community-relations director for the company even told the city it had a “very impressive” railroad park and that he would be “happy to provide” decorative decals.
Then, last year, residents once again started complaining about blocked crossings. City officials noticed it, too — and they started considering an ordinance.
The root of the issue came down to a train platform on the east side of 5th Street. If westbound trains park there, they’re blocking one of Alpine’s major thoroughfares. If they stop on the east side, where there isn’t a platform, they don’t.
In an email last year, Union Pacific told the city it “believes the best course of action is to leave the crew change at its current location” on the west side of the street. The company cited “safety concerns with our personnel crossing the street” and said it did not believe that using a city crosswalk was a “viable option.”
Alpine city officials said they regularly saw Union Pacific employees crossing the street, and they weren’t persuaded by the company’s explanations. City council passed the ordinance in February. Under the new rules, Union Pacific is fined $1,000 if it blocks the 5th Street crossing for more than 10 minutes, as well as $100 for each additional minute.
Since then, not a lot has changed. Union Pacific has continued blocking 5th Street in the center of Alpine, frustrating residents and emergency responders. In the process, it’s racked up around $17,000 in fines, which Union Pacific says in court filings it has paid.
Those fines come from seven different ordinance violations, Alpine Police Chief Robert Martin said in an interview this week. But most of the total cost came from one incident a couple months ago.
“They actually broke down,” he said. In total, he estimates the train blocked 5th Street for almost two hours — and he said the company wasn’t fixing the problem. “They had engines where they could have pushed it back 30 or 40 feet,” he said. “They would not have blocked 5th and not been fined.”
When the ordinance first passed earlier this year, only one Alpine city council member — Ramon Olivas — voted against it. In an interview earlier this year, Olivas argued there were other street crossings in Alpine that could be used if 5th Street was closed. He urged the city to continue negotiating with Union Pacific rather than adopting a punitive ordinance.
“I made my stance by saying, ‘Let’s go back for renegotiations,’” Olivas said.
But as other Alpine city officials see it, there just isn’t much left to negotiate. Erik Zimmer, city manager of Alpine, stressed in an interview this week that Alpine officials and residents only wanted one thing: to keep 5th Street unblocked, so that emergency response vehicles could use it.
“The negotiation is, you’re either going to park on the east or west side,” he said. “So there’s no negotiation on their part.”
For now at least, city leaders aren’t too worried about the lawsuit. Rod Ponton, the city’s attorney, acknowledges that many aspects of train traffic are in fact regulated at the federal (not city) level. Alpine couldn’t pass a sweeping rule for all train tracks in town, he said.
But in a legal response, he argued that Alpine’s ordinance “is narrowly tailored to fix a specific, local problem dealing with local traffic and safety concerns caused by railroad operations at a single crossing.” And that, he says, means it’s well within Alpine’s rights.
“All they have to do is stop 20 feet short of that intersection, no problem,” he said of Union Pacific. “They’d rather go 20 feet past it and park by the depot.”
Asked about the lawsuit, a spokesperson for Union Pacific said the company decided to sue the city after City Attorney Ponton “ended discussions to find potential traffic flow solutions near the Alpine rail depot.” She said the depot was the “official crew change location” not only for Union Pacific, but also for regional Amtrak trains.
“Union Pacific encourages the City of Alpine to rescind the ordinance, which should remove the need for litigation,” the spokesperson added. “We are committed to working with the city council and welcome the opportunity to resume collaborative conversations outside of the courtroom.”