Crush hour

PRESIDIO — Local legend holds the Devil used to swing out here. He rocked back and forth between the communities of Ojinaga, Mexico, and Presidio, Texas, flame-tipped ocotillo and rugged greasewood tickling his rooster feet.

After innumerable misdeeds, El Diablo found himself sealed up in a cave behind an inconveniently placed rock. But many Big Bend residents say they can hear him idling thereabouts even now, the fumes of his satanic semi building to a potentially critical black mass.

This time, however, he’ll bring his diesel-torched minions, fouling the air and choking the state highways that double as Main Street in the tourist towns of Marfa, Alpine, and Fort Davis — towns that seem to float on this exhaustingly spacious landscape.

If the Beast was known by a number, the old triple-six, the specter haunting border dwellers today has a name: La Entrada al Pacifico. It’s a trade route dreamed up as a nod to economic diversification in the tool-pushing cities of Midland and Odessa, post ’80s oil slump.

Project supporters got seasonal ink in area papers, lending their ambition a veneer of veracity that belied the plan’s implausibility. A pen-swipe of then-Gov George W. Bush identified the route in 1997 with an appropriation of $30,000 for highway signs, but little of substance followed.

However, the haunting escalated just over a year ago with a parting gift from former U.S. Representative Henry Bonilla. The conservative
Republican waxed by Ciro Rodriguez last November secured $1.2 million in federal funds for an official TxDOT study of the project’s potential. Part of the analysis includes studying the “underutilized” border crossing at Presidio, according to TxDOT literature.

Presidio and Odessa stand to gain from increased traffic, but the spare, tourist camps along the way that rely on unspoiled isolation would get the traffic without the benefit of even gasoline sales.

“When they fill up here they’re going straight through these towns. They’re not stopping,” said Presidio City Administrator Cynthia Clark, tugging a dog-nibbled pump back onto her foot.
“Everyone’s going through Marfa. They’re the ones that will suffer the worst.”

Marfa, internationally known for resident
Chinati Foundation, a permanent large-scale sculptural mecca of minimalist art, would surrender its austere flavor to Big Bend bottleneck if early TxDOT projections become reality. The two-lane road entering downtown makes a tight wrap around the ornate Presidio County courthouse on its way to Fort Davis. In Alpine, a right turn from Marfa and host to one of the region’s few electric traffic signals, trucks would idle just a few blocks south of its elementary — not a popular notion in these unspoiled parts.

Promoters at the Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance, including Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick’s wife, Nadine, have long crowed the route will link West Texas to Topolobampo, a port town tucked beneath the wing of Baja California on the Gulf of California. Mexican shippers would then be able to compete with unionized ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach for the infinitely expanding, and now certifiably toxic, Chinese market. First, however, it would have to carve its way over and through Copper Canyon and some of the most treacherous mountain passes in Chihuahua’s rugged southwest. One existing rail line making the 120-mile passage through the canyon
traverses no less than 40 bridges and 80 tunnels.

Questions about how much business a dredged port at Topolobampo would really do have also dogged the project. At the dedication ceremony beside I-20, a Mexican mayor from the state of Durango was quoted in the Odessa American as praising the lack of pollution in Midland and Odessa before inviting the local officials down to see “the many products that we can supply this area.” Still, for the port plans to work, major construction projects still must get underway in Mexico.

While Presidio has grown since the U.S. Border Patrol shut down the numerous “unofficial” crossings up and down the notch El Rio cuts on its way to impoundment at Amistad, it’s a long way from the 100,000 trucks boiling through per year that Chihuahua’s director of industry promised back in 1997.

Although traffic has more than doubled here in the last decade, the port still only averaged 18 trucks a day last year, according to the Border Patrol. A 2003 report to the state Comptroller suggested that traffic could climb to 300 per day — or 900 per day if only five percent if truckers crossing at El Paso simply angled for Presidio.

Truckers are likely wary of ongoing congestion at the port. Merchants complain about hour-long delays cutting down the number of Mexican shoppers entering Payless, Radio Shack, and Auto Zone, as well. “I’ve always said the trucks are coming, but I don’t know how they’re going to get through that port of entry,” Clark says.

Heightened security screenings backing up traffic appear to have hit local sales-tax revenue, which dipped this year from $28,481 to $27,680.

Area residents beyond Presidio are taking the current TxDOT study seriously. Don Dowdy of neighboring Alpine has been actively working with a group of area residents to assist TxDOT with their traffic model, a model which will, in turn, determine whether the route ever becomes more than a name on a green highway sign.

It was Dowdy’s group that reminded TxDOT of the current $5.25-billion plan to double capacity at the Panama Canal, an event that would impact the feasibility of Topolobampo by moving more cargo ships into Gulf-side ports in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Meanwhile, growth at Fabens, a port just south of El Paso, will be relieving traffic at Texas’s westernmost point. Considered along with expansion at Laredo and Santa Teresa, Presidio stands to see, at maximum, about 80 trucks per day, according to preliminary figures, Dowdy said. Still, all is riding on the result of TxDOT’s number-crunching, which will be delivered at a January public hearing, most likely in Marfa.

“Until you know how much traffic is coming, you can’t really talk about alternatives,” Dowdy said. “If there’s not traffic coming, you recommend a no-build. If there’s 10,000 trucks a day, you
recommend something else.”

Dowdy’s group sent their final list of recommendations to TxDOT on Monday.

Key political support remains in place not only with Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, having maneuvered through another session with gavel in hand, but in the office of Bonilla’s replacement, U.S. Representative Ciro Rodriguez.

“It would bring growth to these areas that need it,” said a Rodriguez aide recently. Granted, it may only offer temporary construction jobs and service-level work, but “in a place as rural as West Texas, these are decent-paying jobs,” he said.

About 400 Big Bend residents packed a public hearing in Alpine seven months ago to object to the plan.

“I, like TxDOT, was blown away the first meeting they came out here,” Dowdy said. “I think the quality of the response we’ve made to their presentations … has made it fairly clear they’re not dealing with some country bumpkins and they’re going to have to do a good job.”

Such a public display of interest has not occurred in Midland, where the La Entrada dream was born.

“We did not experience that at the meetings that were held `in Midland`,” said TxDOT planning coordinator Peggy Thurin. “Now whether those folks exist out there and for whatever reason did not attend the meeting, I can’t tell you.”

Also unclear is the commitment of Mexican officials to completing the link between Topolobampo and Chihuahua City. A TxDOT project consultant has been fed a range of numbers seemingly “depending on what official he was talking to,” Thurin said.

Others have long surrendered hope of stopping La Entrada.

A petition still gathering signatures last month at a Fort Davis gas station lay sadly splayed, disregarded at the counter’s end. “I don’t think it will do any good,” the manager says with a nod to the paper. “They’re going to do what they want.”

Presidio Chamber Director Erin Velasquez promises the Devil will ride again.

“The trucks are going to be here,” says Velasquez, “but we’re just going to embrace it, because it’s going to better our community.”

In what way?

More chain stores, she promises.

“A lot more, thank God.”

One day soon, rooster spurs could brush against a Taco Bell on the bank of this borderland. That, it seems, could be the end of the Big Bend as we know it. •


Click here to hear Gary Oliver's anti-globilization accordion crunch, La Entrada.


La Entrada


A key NAFTA component lost in a jangle of debate and court proceedings since 1990 hacked its way out of the brush this September only to be met with an unwelcoming protestant bawl.

President Bush’s one-year pilot program seeking to open the country to Mexican trucking hit the country like a fetid lump of chile-flavored fruit. While much of the public was still high on anti-immigrant fumes, unionists and environmentalists concerned with health, safety, and trade issues lashed themselves together to stop the trucks.

Though many companies already haul into the U.S. interior from Mexico due to special exemptions, it took the U.S. 15 years to finally license three U.S. and five Mexican companies representing a total of 45 trucks to ship across both nations. Up to 100 companies in each country are allowed to participate in the pilot program.

A NAFTA arbitration panel in 2001 said the U.S. was illegally limiting Mexican truck access to a 25-mile buffer in Texas, New Mexico, and California, and a 75-mile buffer in Arizona.

The success of La Entrada al Pacifico hinges in part on the White House’s ability to defend its porous-border plans against an agitated Congress even as the federal-security Goliath of Homeland Security hoists the border wall.

— Greg Harman