March 2, 2022 452 PM
PRESIDIO — Presidio City Council devoted two public agenda items to a proposed diesel transport operation at Monday night’s special meeting. The operation — a collaboration between Strobel Energy and Texas Pacifico that will bring up to 150 tanker trucks of diesel fuel through Presidio each week — has generated controversy since it was initially pitched to city officials. Investors hope that the operation will mark the rebirth of rail in Presidio, bringing jobs and trade to a town hungry for opportunity.
At Monday’s meeting, officials kicked off the process of looking into a potential bypass so that the diesel-filled trucks — and eventually, other kinds of freight — could be routed around the city to the Presidio Port of Entry. Councilmember Arian Velázquez-Ornelas introduced a motion to initiate the process of collaborating with TxDOT to create a highway master plan regulating commercial freight traffic through the city in hopes of eventually creating such a bypass. The master plan would include a timeline and funding sources. “Now that we have a good audit, we can actually pursue [funding] in full force,” she said.
City council last discussed the issue on January 17, when numerous Presidio residents braved a local COVID surge to hash out their concerns with local officials. “So for a year, maybe two to three years, we will be living with these trucks — hazmat going through our town past the elementary school, clogging up our traffic, eating up what few asphalt-paved roads we have and blocking entry and exit across the river,” Presidio Municipal Development District Executive Director Jeran Stephens said. “And we haven’t even gotten into the dangers of this yet.”
In the weeks since that meeting, county officials have met multiple times to discuss and update the county’s emergency protocols. Representatives from state Sen. César Blanco’s office met virtually with concerned Presidio residents, hoping to use their connections to bring state-level agencies together to discuss the issue. An important question was raised over and over again: what power does the city of Presidio hold to regulate the transport of hazardous materials through town and across the international bridge?
Monday’s meeting marked the first public presentation on the issue by City Attorney Rod Ponton, tasked with exploring the legality of limiting or prohibiting hazmat transport through the city of Presidio. “Cities have a pretty broad ability to keep hazardous materials out,” he explained. “Other border cities have put in ordinances that designate hazardous materials routes. The one thing we can’t do is block hazardous materials from state highways.”
The route, as currently proposed, entails the transfer of diesel fuel from rail cars onto tanker trucks in the Presidio Stockyards through a process known as transloading. Those trucks will then make their way onto O’Reilly Street, where they will pass the fire station, elementary school and post office before making a right-hand turn at the Y intersection. Just past Porter’s, they will turn left and join U.S.-67 for the only stretch of the route on a state highway before queuing up in front of the Presidio Port of Entry.
While the city can’t block fuel transport on the final leg of its journey on U.S.-67, the Presidio Port of Entry is not currently designated as a hazmat facility. “Right now, we’re not there, but when the hazmat starts coming in, we as a team are going to need to start looking at how we’re going to set up our port of entry as a hazmat-designated area,” Port Director Jesus Luis Chavez said at January’s city council meeting.
“Presidio really should look not just at hazardous materials — we should look at the broader picture of border trade,” Ponton said. Interest in Presidio as a hub for fuel shipping has grown as Mexico struggles to meet its own demand for fuel. While the country is working toward ending oil exports and achieving fuel independence, Ponton pointed out that it currently can only produce about 20 percent of the refined oil products needed to keep the country running.
In the weeks before the meeting, Councilmember Velázquez-Ornelas spearheaded an effort looking into the feasibility of constructing a freight bypass around Presidio, so big trucks and hazmat headed for the port won’t need to cut through the city. The idea has precedent: TxDOT’s U.S.-67 Corridor Study, compiled in 2020 after years of public input, explored solutions to clogged traffic in front of the Presidio bridge.
The study noted that at peak crossing times, traffic headed toward the bridge could back up up to four miles, preventing entry and exit into the city of Presidio proper for residents. Other Big Bend communities — including Marfa — fought the prospect of freight bypasses, but the idea could take hold in Presidio, where vehicles often have long waits in town before they cross the bridge. In 2015, peak traffic near the port of entry was estimated at around 4,100 vehicles per day, and is expected to grow to 6,600 vehicles per day by 2045.
Cresson, Texas — the home of another Strobel Energy Group transloading operation where fuel headed to Presidio will be transferred from a pipeline onto rail cars — sought a bypass in 2018 to alleviate unpredictable railyard traffic that delayed commuters’ daily trips to and from Fort Worth. The project is estimated to be completed in 2023, and will likely cost the state $61 million dollars.
City council plans to discuss the issue again at a meeting on March 8. Given its proximity to oil producers in the Permian Basin, Presidio is an attractive destination for the international fuel trade. “If the diesel people start doing it, other people will start doing it,” Ponton explained. “More fuel will come. We need to figure this out.”