I was recently reminded of a luncheon meeting I attended at the Brownwood Country Club where representatives from Brownwood city government and local economic development groups heard an update and an optimistic outlook for the future of the rail industry in Texas.
John Helsley, president of Rail District Advisors Inc., was the speaker and the specific project he was updating the group on was the CenTex Rural Rail District. The district consists of Brown, Comanche, Erath, Hood and Johnson counties and was formed specifically to block the abandonment of the rail line. The district purchased 134 miles of track belonging to the Santa Fe Railroad. At the meeting Helsley spoke also of the potential of the rail line running west and south from Brown County to Presidio, Texas, and the border with Mexico.
The Presidio line was in serious disrepair but there were talks under way for the formation of a partnership that would purchase the railroad track, institute the upgrades to make the Presidio Line a viable route for moving freight from Mexico, and also provide an alternative for the freight coming from Asia through the Gulf of California. One of the more interested players at the time was the Texas Department of Transportation because of the relief rail transports would give to the state’s highways. Since NAFTA, the growing number of trucks have increased not only traffic congestion, but the wear and tear on the highways. The meeting was seven years ago, in March of 2000, two years before Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced his vision of the Trans Texas Corridor and the idea of toll roads for the solution to Texas’ traffic congestion.
The Presidio rail line made the papers several weeks ago, but this time it was not optimistic news, at least not for residents of the quiet West Texas towns in the scenic Big Bend area. Rather than improve the track over the past seven years at an estimated cost then of $11 million, according to Helsley, the rai line was leased to Texas Pacifico. The rail line is still in such bad shape that trains can only travel 10 miles per hour. Now the costs to repair the track to the point where trains could travel at 45 miles per hour on it are near $200 million, according to Mark Cross, a spokesman for the Transportation Department.
It seems that rather than taking a multi-faceted approach to the growing congestion on Texas highways, the current strategy in the state is to rely solely on trucks and highways, public and private. A major truck corridor, La Entrada al Pacifico, that would utilize existing roads and funnel truck traffic from the Mexican port of Topolobampo, Mexico, all the way to Midland-Odessa could be finalized in less than a year. The project backers say it could benefit the state’s economy and serve as another way to ship Chinese and Mexican imports to and through Fort Worth and Dallas. What they are really saying is it provides another road for moving large trucks. The Star-Telegram reported recently that 6,616 trucks crossed into Texas at Presidio in 2006. That is 18-plus trucks per day. The number is expected to grow to 150 per day in three to five years and to 200 per day once the La Entrada corridor is completed.
Is it a good deal for Texas? The two Permian Basin cities see the truck traffic as a way to diversify their petroleum-based economy. Ranchers, retirees and tourists in Marfa, Alpine and Fort Davis have a different opinion. They see the rumbling of the hundreds of Mexican trucks through their towns as the ruin of their economy. The Big Bend area markets itself as a destination offering peace and quiet devoid of congested roads and pollution that result in clear skies where millions of stars can be viewed at night. The McDonald Observatory is not there by accident. In recent years the area has seen a marked growth as more people appear willing to sacrifice convenience for a remote and esthetic way of life.
Given the American love affair with the automobile, and the population growth in the state, congestion from private vehicles on Texas highways will continue to be a topic of concern for the transportation department. It seems to me, shifting more of the delivery of commercial cargo from trucks on the highways to trains on the track offers taxpayers a better return on investment.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.