The First New Rail Bridge to Mexico in More Than a Century

The 15-year effort required help, money and patience from two countries, one state and a railroad operator.
by | April 8, 2015
(West Rail Media)

Mexico and the United States haven't built a new crossing point for freight trains between the countries for more than a century. That’s about to change in the next few weeks, largely because of the efforts of local governments in South Texas.

They have pushed to build a new railroad bridge spanning the Rio Grande outside Brownsville, Texas, which is now largely completed. When it opens, it will mark the end of a 15-year effort by local officials to move freight trains crossing into Matamoros, Mexico, out of downtown Brownsville, the southernmost city in Texas. Many localities have dealt with similar problems, but the international border crossing added a new dimension of complexity to the effort.

Local officials -- including at least three Brownsville mayors and three county “judges,” or executives, on the American side, plus more in Mexico -- stuck with the project because of the benefits they hope it will bring.

Diverting freight trains west of the city will eliminate 14 railroad street crossings. The current route takes freight trains through residential areas, along neighborhood parks and through commercial areas, said County Judge Pete Sepulveda, Jr.

“The problem is that a lot of times, before the train is allowed to go into Mexico, they have to stage it. That blocks off several areas of downtown Brownsville,” while also making it harder for fire engines and police cars to respond to emergencies, he said.

Most of the work on the new crossing is done, but the Mexican government is in the process of setting up its security checkpoint, which will screen traffic in both directions until the U.S. can move its equipment once the existing rail crossing is closed.

Sepulveda, who was just promoted to the county’s executive post last month, first started working on the crossing after a neighborhood hearing 15 years ago, when it was clear that the community opposed adding a series of bridges through downtown to separate the railroad tracks from the streets it crossed. An engineer from the state first raised the idea of moving the tracks entirely.

That turned out to mean building nearly six miles of new track starting north of Brownsville and around to the west, crossing into Mexico in a rural area and joining with an existing rail line nearby. The most expensive part of the project is on the Mexican side, because it required the relocation of a switchyard.

Construction of the bridge is set to complete in the next few weeks. (West Rail Media)

Mexico paid $80 million for the changes, which will also help the Mexican city of Matamoros -- which, at half a million people, has more than 2.5 times the population of Brownsville -- reduce congestion too.

But paying for the American share was the most difficult part of the project, said Sepulveda, who has helped develop three other bridges on the U.S.-Mexico border. With bridges carrying vehicles, the government can normally charge tolls to help cover the costs. But that doesn’t work for freight rail, where the railroad owns the tracks.

So Brownsville and Cameron County officials cobbled together $40 million from other sources. Most of the money came from the federal government, although that was divided among several agencies. The state of Texas, local governments and Union Pacific also picked up part of the costs, Sepulveda said.

The federal money, and the fact that the project is an international port of entry, came with a lot of extra regulation. The State Department, the Federal Railroad Administration and the state of Texas had to review the project for environmental impacts. Local officials in the border town are used to dealing with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, but they found that rail crossings were overseen by a different set of regulators within Customs those who oversee vehicle crossings.

The federal government paid for most of the American tab for the project with Texas, local governments and Union Pacific picking up the rest. (West Rail Media)

“It was difficult from the standpoint that it hadn’t been done before. We had a lot of difficulties from [the Department of Homeland Security, which includes Customs], because they hadn’t done another bridge in 100 years. That was pretty frustrating,” Sepulveda said.

(A Customs spokesman referred all questions to Sepulveda.)

Union Pacific, which also operates at the five other rail crossings between the U.S. and Mexico, has supported the county in shifting rail traffic out of downtown Brownsville, but the railroad does not expect it to boost capacity, said company spokesman Jeff DeGraff.

The change was made easier by the fact that Cameron County was able to acquire the land for the alternate route, which many communities cannot, he said. Unlike in many areas, the path for a new route runs through mostly open space and generated little controversy.

“This was something that was brought forward by the county. They spearheaded the project. They took it on themselves. We’re happy to work with them,” DeGraff said. “It shows what can be accomplished when these different levels of government, both in the U.S. and across the border, work together on a project like this.”