Thursday, March 15, 2007

La Entrada al Pacífico: “It grieves me that our state leaders would sacrifice this region for a few people in Midland.”

Hundreds object to La Entrada at Alpine meeting


Big Bend Sentinel
Copyright 2007

ALPINE – In an informal show of hands, about 400 Alpine, Marfa and Fort Davis residents opposed a highway-based La Entrada al Pacífico at a Texas Department of Transportation public hearing in Alpine Tuesday night.

The transportation department recently partnered with HDR Engineering to begin a study of the La Entrada trade corridor, which would increase freight traffic from the Mexican port of Topolobampo, Sinaloa to Midland-Odessa by way of Presidio, Marfa and Alpine.

This week’s meeting in Alpine and Presidio and next week’s meetings in Fort Stockton and Midland are the first of three rounds of public hearings on the feasibility study, which TxDOT expects to finish by March 2008.

The Texas Transportation Commission, urged by the Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance, approved the La Entrada concept in 1995, and the corridor was signed into law by then-Governor George Bush in 1997.

La Entrada al Pacífico signs soon appeared along the proposed route, which follows US 67 from Presidio through Marfa, Alpine and Fort Stockton and up US 385 and Interstate 20 to Midland-Odessa.

Mexico has since finished its first 35-mile segment of the corridor between Chihuahua and Ojinaga, Chihuahua and in 2005 TxDOT received a federal go-ahead to build a Midland reliever route, the first La Entrada segment in Texas.

On Tuesday, hundreds of people crowded into the Alpine High School cafeteria to hear about the current proposal to create a four-lane divided-highway along the length of the corridor. At about 6:30pm, TxDot statewide planning coordinator Peggy Thurin interrupted the hour-long “Open House” on TxDot’s meeting agenda to make enough time for public comment. She tried to assure the grumbling crowd La Entrada was not set in stone.

“I swear, on my mother’s 80th birthday, this is not a done deal,” Thurin said. “That is why we are doing this study.”

Thurin and Brian Swindell, an HDR senior project manager, explained the purpose of the meeting was to get feedback on the corridor.

Swindell said the study would analyze alternatives to the proposed highway upgrades, including building bypasses, reviving the South Orient railroad and the “no build,” or do nothing, alternative.

Swindell also said the study would consider the project’s consistency with TxDOT’s statewide goals to reduce congestion, enhance safety, expand economic opportunity, improve air quality and increase the value of transportation assets.

After Swindell’s brief presentation, Marfa resident and transportation planner Bob Schwab said it would be difficult for everyone in the audience to speak at the meeting.

“I would like everyone’s opinion to be recorded even by a show of hands,” Schwab said.

Swindell and Thurin hesitated, but Schwab stood up and asked the crowd who was in favor of a highway-based La Entrada.

One man from Presidio, Benny Matchett, raised his hand.

During the ensuing three hours of public comment, about 40 Alpine, Marfa and Fort Davis residents voiced their opposition to a highway-based La Entrada.

Most people objected to the increased truck traffic that a highway corridor would bring through the region, and several said that traffic’s impact on the area would conflict with TxDOT’s statewide goals.

Alpine Mayor Mickey Clouse said, “Alpine, Marfa and Fort Davis do not want truck traffic in this area.”

Several people argued the regional tourism industry would be destroyed by a steady flow of trucks through downtown Marfa and Alpine.

Teri Smith, owner of Alpine’s Antelope Lodge, said the truck route would pass directly in front of her motel and many other hotels on Highway 90.

“If the trucks come through Alpine, they will put us out of business,” Smith said.

“We’ve been growing,” she continued. “And we can lose all of that because tourists won’t come to a place where they have to fight trucks to get to a hotel.”

Alpine resident Roger Siglin agreed area businesses had worked hard to build the tourism industry here. He pointed to TxDOT’s goal to increase transportation assets and said, “What about preserving our tourism assets?”

Others pointed out the trucks’ impact on a tourism-based economy would conflict with another TxDOT goal to enhance economic opportunity.

Increased truck traffic would also harm tourism by polluting the area’s environment, several speakers argued.

Sierra Club of Texas Big Bend Chapter President Don Dowdey said truck exhaust contributes to ozone and other types of air pollution.

Alpine resident Martha Latta said trucks driving at night would create light pollution.

“I think we could kiss McDonald Observatory, all the astronomers, and all the people that come for that, goodbye,” she said.

Dowdey alluded to the noise pollution trucks would create. “We own a precious natural resource,” he said. “Peace and quiet.”

In addition to light and noise pollution, several people argued the trucks would increase air pollution. A few mentioned air pollution’s larger impact on climate change, and others said air pollution would conflict with another TxDot goal to improve air quality.

Siglin said, “We have a hard time understanding how these trucks are going to improve our air quality.”

Sierra Blanca resident and activist Bill Addington said, “That diesel soot is going to impact every one of your health.”

Several others argued diesel exhaust would exacerbate residents’ respiratory problems, such as COPD, asthma and allergies. Alpine resident Robert Flanders said small particles in the exhaust also carry cancer-causing toxins.

“Having a bunch more diesel trucks, if it even caused one cancer death that would be too many,” Flanders said.

Another Alpine resident, Joe Goldman, said he recently retired from Houston to Alpine for the clean air. If the trucks come through Alpine, he said, “The reason I left Houston will then reside here, and I will have to go elsewhere.”

Goldman was one of several retirees who said they had moved to the region for the environment and air quality. They argued truck traffic would keep others from moving here, as well as forcing many residents with health problems to leave.

Marfa resident Bill White said his wife’s chemical sensitivity prompted them to move to Marfa, which, along with Fort Davis, has the cleanest air in the country.

“We’d like to keep it that way,” White said. “We’ve got nowhere else to go.”

Many people raised concerns about the safety of the Mexican trucks themselves.

“Our real nightmare is the Mexican trucks,” Fort Davis resident Harold Pattillo said.

Alpine resident Craig Frye said 5,200 Americans die annually in collisions with semi-trucks. And those are American trucks with good inspectors and good trained drivers, he said. Frye and others said Mexican trucking companies do not have the same emissions, equipment safety, insurance and driver training standards as American trucking firms.

Several people argued increased Mexican truck traffic would cause more accidents in the region. Dowdey said the limited medical facilities in the area would not be able to handle those accidents.

Most people who objected to truck traffic on a highway-based La Entrada said they would support a railroad-based La Entrada using the existing South Orient rail line.

“The trains are a no-brainer,” said Alpine resident Mary Bell Lockhart.

Mayor Clouse read an Alpine City Council resolution that supported the rail option, which Dowdey said the Sierra Club also thought was more suitable.

“You’re not the Texas department of roads,” Dowdey told the TxDOT speakers.

Dowdey and many others argued moving freight by rail is cheaper, more efficient, and less environmentally damaging than by truck. Other alternatives, such as building bypasses around Marfa and Alpine, would still bring traffic and pollution through the area, they argued. And building a bypass around Alpine would be difficult because of the mountainous terrain, Lockhart said.

Those who favored the train route argued it would keep trucks from damaging the Big Bend region but still enable the trade corridor to reach Midland, they argued.

“We’re not saying don’t make money Midland-Odessa,” Antelope Lodge owner Smith said. “Just make it in a way that doesn’t hurt us.”

A few people said Midland-Odessa was pushing the La Entrada project at the expense of Marfa and Alpine.

Sierra Blanca resident Addington said, “It grieves me that our state leaders would sacrifice this region for a few people in Midland.”

Aside from looking at alternative routes in Texas, other people raised concerns about the Mexican segment of La Entrada.

Alpine resident Fran Sage and others questioned the feasibility of moving freight through the rugged terrain of Copper Canyon. Alpine resident Pam Gaddis said encouraging the development of this Topolobampo-to-Chihuahua segment was wasteful.

“This whole premise of a corridor is weak on both ends,” Fort Davis resident Pattillo said, questioning Midland-Odessa’s ability to become a distribution center.

While most public comments focused on where and what La Entrada should become, a few people questioned whether the corridor should exist at all.

Marfa resident Schwab said the world has changed considerably since then-Governor Bush first signed La Entrada into law. Schwab brought up a recent call from now-President Bush to focus our national attention on reducing our reliance on foreign oil, decreasing greenhouse gases and preventing terrorism. Schwab said La Entrada would increase foreign oil use, worsen global warming and put the nation at risk of terrorist attacks.

He asked how our nation would benefit from foreign drivers bringing foreign manufactured goods through a foreign port with foreign shippers. “Does that make sense to any of you?” he asked.

He told the TxDOT representatives it might be time for them to reconsider La Entrada and have the courage to say, “Let’s scuttle this when we can and respond to a national call to do a better thing.”

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