By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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Blaming his bankruptcy on "the cannibals of Wall Street," Stillwell ultimately lost control of the project. And although the South Orient line was completed decades later, it has never reached its potential. The idle line, now called the Texas Pacifico, is being leased from the Texas Department of Transportation by a Mexican railroad company that hopes to restore it to service. But Stillwell's line soon may be eclipsed by a highway project called La Entrada al Pacifico, which has been promoted since the early 1990s by business groups in Mexico and West Texas.
"La Entrada al Pacifico is essential to opening Texas to the explosive marketplaces of the Pacific Rim and East Asia. Topolobampo is an attractive alternative to the crowded Port of Los Angeles. Having more trucks use the border crossing at Presidio eases pressure on the overburdened international crossings at El Paso," reads a piece of literature promoting the project.
Backers of La Entrada see it as both logical and inevitable. "This is a century-old idea. It's not something we dreamed up. It's the shortest route from the Pacific Coast to the heartland of the United States. I think it saves 500 miles over going through Los Angeles," says Buddy Sipes, a Midland oilman. "It's nothing new. It's just that now people are realizing it's going to be a reality."
Ready or not, it is only a matter of months before the Mexican trucks begin rolling across the two-lane bridge into Presidio, Sipes says.
"When the trucks come onto the U.S. roads, the Texas roads, it's gonna make an impact on them. Their sleepy little lifestyles will end for a while unless they get bypasses around their cities," he says. "I'm afraid they're gonna sit there and say, no, no, no, until the trucks start coming. There is no way they can stop the trucks from coming down their main streets without providing an alternative," he says. Sipes is a member of the Midland Odessa Transportation Alliance (MOTRAN), which has been pushing for a north-south trade route through West Texas since 1993, a year after NAFTA became law.
The group started out using the acronym MOTA until it learned this was Spanish slang for marijuana. It then switched to MOTRAN, which means nothing in either Spanish or English. MOTRAN's early hopes of convincing state highway officials to complete a four-lane highway south from Lubbock to Midland have given way to more modest ambitions.
The La Entrada al Pacifico plan calls for routing Mexican traffic through Presidio and north to Fort Stockton, Odessa and Midland. The U.S. highways would be improved as the traffic load dictates. MOTRAN founder Charles Perry of Odessa believes the region, now dependent on the declining oil patch, will benefit from becoming a major trade link with Mexico. He and others have worked closely with government officials in Chihuahua and Sinaloa who were quick to begin investing in their end of the multistage project. Besides constructing the new bypass south of Ojinaga, engineers are widening other stretches of highway to Chihuahua City and planning new construction all the way to the coast. The critical link is a planned four-lane highway over the 7,000-foot Sierra Nevada. It would connect the states of Chihuahua and Sinaloa, but so far this ambitious highway has not received necessary federal funding. If it is built, Mexican truckers will have an improved highway all the way from Topolobampo through Chihuahua City to Ojinaga. "I wouldn't be surprised if 10 years from now, there are 1,000 trucks a day coming in through Ojinaga and Presidio. It could have a significant economic effect on Midland and Odessa if our local people develop the infrastructure," Perry says. Other bold projections from Mexico suggest as many as 4,000 trucks a day when the route is fully developed in a decade or two. But, Perry says, for the small Texas towns on the route, there is little to look forward to from La Entrada al Pacifico.
"Marfa and Alpine are too small and are not major hubs. The only one between us and the border we think will benefit significantly is Fort Stockton. It sits on [Interstate 10] and will have some possibilities for warehousing," he says. For all their efforts, the MOTRAN group has not convinced either Texas or federal officials to spend a dime on improving roads and services on the U.S. side in anticipation of the truck route.
Despite numerous green highway signs marking the designated route of La Entrada al Pacifico, so far the state highway officials have adopted a wait-and-see approach.
Mexican officials, on the other hand, are going full-speed ahead and are optimistic the entire highway will be built in the next five to six years. "We have talked to the businesses in Sinaloa. Right now they send more than 100,000 produce trailers a year to the East Coast of the United States. Once the highway is complete, they will then go to the port of Presidio to save a lot of time," says Miguel Calderon, director of the state industrial board for Chihuahua. "And this doesn't include the traffic from the maquiladoras or from the Pacific Coast. And also there is traffic from Torreon and Durango that could go through Ojinaga."