With new filings, court battle continues over Alpine blocked railroad crossing ordinance

ALPINE — Alpine wants a federal court to throw out a lawsuit brought by Union Pacific over the city’s blocked-crossing ordinance. In court filings last week, Rod Ponton, the Alpine city attorney, disputed claims made by the company in a lawsuit filed against both him and the city of Alpine.

Alpine is standing its ground on the ordinance, which imposes fines on train companies like Union Pacific if they block the 5th Street crossing in the center of town for more than 10 minutes. Union Pacific has argued that train traffic is regulated at the federal level and that Alpine city government can’t impose rules on them. In September, Union Pacific sued.

In court filings, Ponton pushes back on the company’s claims. He argues that blocked crossings are “an essentially local hazard.” And because Alpine’s ordinance is “narrowly tailored” to address this hazard, the rules do not “impose an unreasonable burden on rail carriers or otherwise violate federal law,” he argues.

“The city denies that the ordinance impermissibly regulates rail safety measures, including train speed, train length, and brake testing, that are covered under the [Federal Railroad Safety Act],” Ponton writes in court filings. “Rather, the Ordinance specifically regulates local health and safety measures.”

Ponton, who was named in the same lawsuit, argues in a separate motion that the case against him should be thrown out. He writes he “merely acts at the direction of the City of Alpine” and has “no discretion in carrying out or enforcing what is ultimately a lawful, duly passed ordinance.” He called the lawsuit against him “superfluous and unnecessary.”

In a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel, Union Pacific said it was aware of the recent filings and hoped to “continue to work with the city to reach a solution that does not involve ongoing litigation.” The spokesperson did not comment on why Ponton was personally named in the case.

The dispute between Alpine and Union Pacific dates back to at least March. That month, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, Alpine passed an ordinance to fine train companies $1,000 if they blocked 5th Street crossing for more than minutes, as well as $100 for each additional minute.

Since then, Union Pacific racked up at least $17,000 in fines, which the company has said in court filings it’s paid. According to Alpine police, much of those fines came from a single incident this summer, when Union Pacific blocked the crossing for hours.

Back in March, only one city council member, Ramon Olivas, voted against the ordinance. In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel at the time, he argued Alpine should continue negotiating with the company rather than adopting new penalties.

But others in local government, including City Manager Erik Zimmer, said there simply wasn’t much left to negotiate. In a memo to the city, Union Pacific expressed “safety concerns with our personnel crossing the street” and said it would continue having its employees disembark at the 5th Street train platform, even if that blocked road traffic. In court filings, Alpine denies that “Union Pacific was engaged in a productive discussion with the city” and says the company instead turned down “multiple potential solutions.”

In an order on Thursday, David Counts, the federal judge overseeing the case, gave Alpine and Union Pacific 30 days to agree on a trial date.