Run Over

Small towns in the Big Bend area brace for an onslaught of Mexican trucks rolling their way thanks to NAFTA

Calderon says talks are already beginning about adding a second bridge in Ojinaga or widening the existing narrow bridge that connects Mexico with Presidio. In late May, Joaquin Barrios, head of highway planning for Chihuahua, traveled to Austin to give a presentation to Texas Department of Transportation commissioners about progress on La Entrada al Pacifico.

"We see this as an industrial-type corridor that will increase development in all the towns it goes through," he told the TxDOT commissioners. In his presentation, Barrios used maps to outline the progress of work on the various stages of the highway from the border to Pacific. "The state of Chihuahua is very interested right now in finishing this great highway. It is the shortest way to the sea," he said.

A businessman from Sinaloa who also traveled to Austin said his government also has high hopes for the new highway. "Commerce follows natural laws. It takes the shortest route," said Mario Cadena of the Sinaloa Development Council.

A road runs through it: Big rigs may soon disturb the peace in sleepy Marfa, above, once Mexico completes a highway linking West Texas to western Mexico. Below, pavement for the new highway breaks on either side of the Rio Conchos in the Chihuahuan Desert.
John Davenport/San Antonio Express-News
A road runs through it: Big rigs may soon disturb the peace in sleepy Marfa, above, once Mexico completes a highway linking West Texas to western Mexico. Below, pavement for the new highway breaks on either side of the Rio Conchos in the Chihuahuan Desert.

"A minimum of a third of the traffic from Sinaloa will go up that route, not even counting traffic from Chihuahua," he said. "Right now we send 1,000 trucks a day to Arizona because we don't have good highways. Certainly, a lot of that traffic will go east," he said.

Despite all the talk of heavy truck traffic, TxDOT planners are skeptical. They have no plans to upgrade roads and build bypasses around the Big Bend towns likely to be most affected.

Instead, this fall, TxDOT will begin a study to determine the traffic needs of the region, with the potential Mexican truck traffic factored into the equation. Should bypasses be needed, it will take five to eight years to build them. "I see an increase in traffic, but nothing we can't handle with the infrastructure on the U.S. side. It's more than adequate for the next few years," says Manny Aguilera, a TxDOT engineer in El Paso. "Marfa is fairly simple to bypass. Alpine would be a bit harder because of the terrain. Fort Davis would be almost impossible, so the route would have to go through Alpine."

State Representative Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, is also unflustered.

"Is the truck traffic coming? Yeah, it's coming. Highway 67 is built along the Old Chihuahuan Trail, and by virtue of geography, Marfa and Alpine will get the traffic, but I'm not convinced we'll see 100,000 trucks a year," he says. "As far as I see it, I'm trying to protect and preserve the quality of life in these counties, while yet admitting we're in the 21st century and that we have to make accommodations."

Only in Presidio is La Entrada al Pacifico seen as anything but a curse. In a town where few people have good jobs, working in a truck stop or motel sounds downright attractive. And who knows, a little development might bring a permanent doctor, dentist and a pharmacy.

"We're talking about women having babies on the highway between Presidio and Alpine because there is a doctor here only once or twice a week," says City Manager Sullivan, who favors the truck route. "I think long-term it will be good for Presidio. It will develop hotels and truck stops, and an individual truck stop brings in millions of dollars."

But Sullivan says he is worried about Presidio being "run over." "I'm pushing like all get-out through every resource I know, state and federal, to get more action. If we get the roads, we'll be successful. If we don't, you'll see more little crosses between Presidio and Marfa. It's already beginning to look like a graveyard with all the people killed," he says.

The Presidio city manager reacted angrily to downstream opposition in Alpine on environmental and aesthetic grounds. "Alpine gets their government welfare check through the university up there. That's a subsidized state university, and it creates the biggest section of jobs. If that university left, there would be screaming for a truck highway," he says.

And although the sign at the city limits of Marfa shows a cowboy on a bucking bronco and reads, "Marfa is What the West Was," in fact, Marfa is what much of the West could never imagine being.

In the last two decades, it has been transformed from a tired old ranching town into a cultural mecca. Most of downtown is owned by foundations for writers, artists and architects, and crusty ranchers mix easily with pilgrims coming from as far away as Europe. James Shead, 35, of London, recently found himself in Marfa, drawn by the chance to see the work of artist Donald Judd, who created the Chinati Foundation. "This is like a pilgrimage really. I've admired his work for a long time," he says. Shead's first impressions of Marfa were also powerful. "Marfa is fantastic. There's a quality of light here that's very special. Last night we went up to see the Marfa Lights, which apparently, I did see," he says, referring to unexplained lights that appear on the horizon outside of town. He recoiled at the news of an impending heavy truck route. "This so-called progress is atrocious, isn't it?" he says.

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