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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sullivan City holds hope for U.S.-Mexico rail bridge

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Sullivan City, Texas, Mayor Rosendo Benavides traces his finger along a line on the map leading from Monterrey to South Texas, The Monitor of McAllen, Texas, reports Abruptly, right before it crosses the Rio Grande near his small town of 4,000, it jags straight east - running near the river before heading into the United States near Brownsville. That line - a Kansas City Southern railroad track that stops just across the river from Sullivan City - offers the best chance his city has to secure an international bridge, he said.


If the city can pull together the political clout for a presidential permit authorizing a rail bridge, Benavides believes his city will get the international crossing it has yearned for years. The county's economic development and political leaders recently amended an application started two years ago to bring a rail bridge to Sullivan City. While the town was first focused on building a bridge solely for vehicle traffic, no rail crossing currently exists between Brownsville and Laredo.


Building one near Sullivan City - and tying it into a line at Hebbronville that runs to points north -would give manufacturers another way to move goods out of the Rio Grande Valley and tie Hidalgo County into busy Gulf Coast ports such as Tampico.


As he traced his hands along the map showing rail lines in northern Mexico and South Texas, Benavides summed up what a bridge would mean for his city.


"Economic development," he said as he leaned over a table in a taqueria just across the Starr County line. "It would put (Sullivan City) on the map."


Sullivan City is an ideal spot for a new rail bridge because it has already submitted a permit request and because of the nearby rail lines, said Mingo Villarreal, coordinator for Precinct 3. Railroad tracks pass close to the river at Ciudad Gustavo Diaz Ordaz on the Mexican side of the border and run along Business 83 in Sullivan City on the U.S. side.


Connecting the two lines would provide a new option to move freight short distances between the maquilas and production facilities in Hidalgo and Starr counties, said Keith Patridge, executive director of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation.


Companies looking to locate there - including an unnamed auto manufacturer McAllen is trying to lure to the area - often complain about the lack of access to large freight railroad companies, he said.


Union Pacific, the largest railroad company in the United States, jointly owns the B&M International Bridge in Brownsville. The company also owns rail lines that cross the Valley and the only tracks that head north out of Harlingen. But Kansas City Southern owns most of the tracks in northeast Mexico, including the international rail bridge between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.


Connecting the company's lines from Monterrey to its switching station in Hebbronville would give Hidalgo County manufacturers access to a second major railroad company, Patridge said.


But even with widespread support for an international rail bridge near Sullivan City, the process is expected to take years. Bureaucratic tangles for a presidential permit are difficult to unwind as are right-of-way agreements and raising the necessary money.


Officials are hopeful that KCS could either completely or jointly fund the bridge and the line to connect it to Hebbronville. But a spokeswoman for the Kansas City, Mo.-based company said it is not currently involved in negotiations.


Delays are not unusual for bridge projects, said Rolando Gonzalez, who has managed the daily affairs for Sullivan City for seven years. County officials worked at length to build a bridge in the mid-1990s near the Los Ebanos ferry before the project fell apart when residents worried it would disrupt life in their quiet community.


Sullivan City still harbors a dream to build a vehicle bridge some day for its residents to cross, and have discussed a twin-span crossing with room for both kinds of traffic. But with support from officials across Hidalgo County and from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Gonzalez believes his city will finally get an international crossing. The only question remaining is what type - and when.

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