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Monday, July 12, 2004

Fear of the beaten path

Fear of the beaten path

Fear of the beaten path
Alpine is anxious over trucks
By Chris Roberts
The Associated Press

ALPINE - 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 narrow main street of this tiny West Texas tourist town.

It's hard to ignore the behemoth in this remote outpost of about 5,600 people, 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 century-old building in Alpine, which sits in a valley surrounded by mountain ridges.

Residents fear that the occasional trucks winding through town will soon be joined by hundreds of others, spewing pollution, drowning out conversation and creating a traffic logjam.

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

The town's main street is also expected to bear a dramatic increase in commercial traffic after 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 & Tattoo Studio.

Many residents are concerned 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 on the 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, the most recent Texas Department of Transportation figures available. That number is estimated to increase to as many as 500 a day within five years, according to U.S. and Mexican estimates. The state of Chihuahua's director of highway planning has predicted 4,000 a day along the route within a decade.

Planners say the Gateway to the Pacific will be a faster route for Asian imports to the U.S. interior and less busy than California ports. Officials in Midland and Odessa have built a business park between the cities in hope that 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, and then go 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 revenues have increased and unemployment has dropped dramatically. "It's good for this city."

But Alpine residents aren't expecting such a windfall.

Many fear that 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, simply rumbling through the towns.

"They'll get way past us burning dirty fuel," said Don Dowdey of Alpine, chairman of the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club. "This is a special, unique place and it ought not to be treated the same way" as major urban centers.

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

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

50 trucks a day ran along the highway from Presidio to Marfa in 2002, according to figures from the Texas Department of Transportation.

500 trucks a day are expected to travel along the route in the next five years.

4,000 trucks a day are expected to travel on the stretch in the next decade, according to the state of Chihuahua's director of highway planning.

5,600 residents call Alpine home

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