State legislators approve $15.5 million for new Presidio railroad inspection station

State legislators approve $15.5 million for new Presidio railroad inspection station

PRESIDIO — Funding to build an inspection station along the rail line that passes through Presidio is nearly on its way after the state House and Senate passed a bill this week that will give $15.5 million in funding to the project.

While the bill still needs the governor’s sign off to become final, the bill passed quickly through the state legislature, which is in its third specially-called session of the year. Senate Bill 8 distributes $16.8 billion of federal money from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, funding a wide variety of projects, from food banks and rural hospitals to broadband infrastructure.

Toward the end of the bill, $15.5 million was allocated to the Texas Department of Transportation to construct a customs inspection station in Presidio as part of the state’s COVID-19 relief and recovery package.

The South Orient Rail Line (SORL) that runs from Fort Worth to the port town of Topolobampo on the Pacific coast of Mexico has already seen significant upgrades over the past couple years in preparation for the reopening of the international rail bridge that connects Presidio and Ojinaga.

After a fire badly burned the rail bridge in 2018, a restoration began in 2018. This year, the infrastructure needed for the train to physically cross the bridge was completed, however, to get commerce moving internationally, goods in the train need to be inspected by U.S. Customs to make sure cargo is in compliance with federal laws and regulations.

Local state representative Eddie Morales said that on top of the federal funding for the U.S. CBP rail inspection station, the newly allocated money will pay for an X-ray machine, lighting, fencing and other miscellaneous improvements “to ensure that rail imports and exports can move through safely and efficiently.”

In September, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said they were collaborating with TxDOT and rail line operator Texas Pacifico to establish “the infrastructure and operational procedures necessary to initiate international rail traffic via the Presidio railroad bridge.”

Jake Giesbrecht of the Presidio International Port Authority said that the land that’s being eyed for the inspection station is currently owned by a mix of private landowners, the railroad, the USDA and CBP.

Construction of a permanent inspection facility may take 30 to 36 months to complete, Stan Meador, a spokesperson for Texas Pacifico, estimated last month. A temporary facility is likely to come sooner, though, so that international commerce can begin. “What we’re doing right now are features putting in place things that allow CBP to effectively process trains before that permanent facility gets built,” Meador said last month.

Texas Pacifico has been moving trains on the north part of the tracks, while Cemex, a Mexican building material company has begun running the rails south of the border. Both sides are hoping to cross the international bridge as soon as possible, though no date has been set for the first train to roll across the bridge from one country to the other.

Presidio City Administrator Brad Newton pointed out that while most rails in the area seem to travel east to west, the return of this rail would be a crucial north to south transit point. When opened, it will be one of only six railways that cross the U.S. Mexico border.

“While in and of itself, this funding does not open the bridge tomorrow, it is a significant milestone in ensuring that commerce on the rail line with our largest trading partner, Mexico, will soon be reestablished, and done in a manner that does not compromise border security,” Meador of Texas Pacifico said this week, after the $15.5 million was secured.

The funding given to the project this week is being added to $17.5 million already secured by TxDOT from federal sources, completing the budget of the $33 million project.

“This is an exciting milestone for our district. The border inspection station at Presidio is a tremendous opportunity locally, statewide, and internationally,” State Senator César Blanco stated in a release after the bill’s passage Monday night. “The growth of trade by rail and road through Presidio — the “next frontier” for border trade — will benefit our local and state economies.”

Newton assured that there will be construction jobs brought to the area because of the project, as well as adding new CBP staff once the station is up and running. The city administrator said the train’s ability to carry the equivalent of 400 truckloads of goods could also benefit Presidio by lessening wear and tear on the highways and improving air quality in the area.

He also hopes to spin the growth of Presidio commerce into a Free Trade Zone (FTZ), a federal classification that could bring certain benefits like changing the rules around duty fees and offering streamlined customs procedures.

From a city perspective, Newton said, “A Free Trade Zone would give a lot of opportunities to a lot of different people — opportunities to develop their lands and instead of growing tumbleweeds. They could grow a business. They could build a warehouse or get involved in international trade. There’s dormant land that could be farmed.”

While none of that will happen overnight, Newton said the new bridge and the re-introduction of the railroad to the community would be a big part of moving the FTZ effort forward.

As American ports have faced bottle necks this year and called the reliability of the global supply chain into question, international trade has demanded more viable trade routes. While it will take time to launch, the rail line through Presidio will be a useful connection for the United States to access shipping happening in the Pacific — through the Mexican port in Topolobampo — and to take advantage of the production of goods and raw materials within Mexico. “This is the escape route for a lot of overload,” Giesbrecht of the new international port.

Senator Blanco also hammered home Presidio’s growing place in the supply chain, stating, “The allocated funds for the completion of the SORL will bolster Texas’s economic competitiveness by creating a new alternative for shipping between Texas and Mexico, and alleviating congestion at other ports of entry on the Texas-Mexico border.”

“The city of Presidio can once again utilize the South Orient Rail Line to bring back rail trade to their community,” Representative Morales said this week. “This is a critical piece of trade infrastructure for the state of Texas, and the United States as a whole.”