Increasing truck traffic worries Texas tourist town

Friday, July 9th 2004, 3:31 pm
By: News On 6

ALPINE, Texas (AP) _ The truck's gears growl and a puff of brown smoke shoots into the clear blue sky. The driver tugs on the steering wheel and the 18-wheeler creeps through a tight turn on the two-lane main street of this little West Texas tourist town.

It is hard to ignore the behemoth in this remote outpost of about 5,600, where art galleries outnumber gas stations.

``When an 18-wheeler makes a turn, people literally have to back up to accommodate the truck,'' said Brewster County Judge Val Beard, whose offices are in a turn-of-the-century building.

Residents fear the occasional trucks winding through town soon will be joined by hundreds of others, spewing pollution, drowning out conversation and clogging the streets.

Alpine sits on a developing 800-mile trade route known as the Gateway to the Pacific. The route, made up mostly of existing roads that are being improved, will stretch from Mexico's Pacific Coast to the Midland-Odessa area when it is completed sometime in the next decade.

The town's main street also is expected to see a dramatic increase in commercial traffic following a Supreme Court ruling last month that opens U.S. roads to Mexican trucks under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

``We'll have more traffic, more noise, and it's going to damage the highways, but there's nothing I or anyone else can do about it,'' said Alan Gerson, who owns Gerson Artworks and Tattoo Studio.

Many residents are worried that traffic will destroy a growing tourist economy that once centered almost exclusively on Big Bend National Park.

``It is disgusting,'' said Peggy Martin, manager of the Kiowa Gallery in Alpine. ``It's progress, I guess. What else can you say? It's stinky and it's noisy.''

The trade route will enter the United States at U.S. 67 in Presidio along the Mexican border. It will then climb over two mountain ridges north to Marfa, then east through the mountains to Alpine and on to Midland and Odessa.

The highway from Presidio to Marfa averaged 50 trucks per day in 2002, according to the most recent Texas Department of Transportation figures. That number is estimated to increase to as many as 500 a day in the next five years, according to U.S. and Mexican projections.

Planners say the Gateway to the Pacific will be a faster route into the U.S. interior for Asian imports, and not as busy as California ports. Officials in Midland and Odessa have built a business park between the cities in hopes the route will help the area become a warehouse and distribution center to supply Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver and other cities.

Once the trade route is complete, Mexican trucks will have to stop for a customs check at Presidio before traveling the 260 miles to Midland-Odessa. In Presidio, where Mexican trucks have long crossed, the truckers have been a boon.

``They eat, they get their tires fixed, they stay in a motel,'' said Presidio City Manager Tom Nance, who says sales tax revenue has increased and unemployment has dropped dramatically. ``It's good for this city.''

But Alpine residents are not expecting such a windfall.

Many fear the trucks will fill up with cheaper and dirtier Mexican diesel before entering the United States. Then they would have no reason to stop along the way.

``They'll get way past us burning dirty fuel,'' said Alpine resident Don Dowdey, chairman of the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club. ``This is a special unique place.''

The state has started to collect data and meet with people in the area about their concerns, said Judy Ramsey of the Texas Department of Transportation. She said the South Orient railroad, owned by the department, is being refurbished and will take some trucks off the road.

Another way to ease the effects would be to build bypass routes around the towns, but Ramsey said money is scarce.

Martin, the Kiowa art gallery manager who has lived in the town for 10 years, said she wishes the town could just stay the same.

``We don't even have a functioning red light and we don't want one,'' she said. ``We don't ever want to be that big.''