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Transportation—Reopening ‘Desert Line’ railroad is key to shipping increases

Transportation: Refurbishing Rail Line Would Facilitate Local East-West Commerce

San Diego’s economic future may depend on what local Congressman Bob Filner calls the “little 100-mile choo-choo.”

The Metropolitan Transit Development Board is looking to reopen a rail line to the east. The line is estimated to benefit the region by millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, annually by increasing shipping into and out of the region.

The MTDB’s board of directors met Jan. 11 to look into opening the “Desert Line,” a portion of the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway that would connect San Diego with El Centro, and from there to an already existing Union Pacific rail line to take goods into Arizona and elsewhere.

The Desert Line has been out of service for most of the last 20 years after storm damage and subsequent fires, said Jack Limber, deputy general counsel for the MTDB.

The board also approved other steps to restart the Desert Line, including the formation of a partnership with Baja California to help facilitate the international movement of passengers and freight, and working with the newly formed Regional Government Efficiency Commission to create a regional rail authority, Limber said.

The Desert Line runs from Campo to Plaster City, near El Centro. At the eastern end, it connects to the Union Pacific line; at the western end, it connects with a Mexican-owned rail line running from Tecate to Tijuana, where it reconnects with MTDB-owned property, he said.

Currently, the Desert Line only sees limited use. An excursion train sponsored by the San Diego Railroad Museum runs from Campo to Tecate. The rest of the line is closed because arson fires have blocked two tunnels along the line, said R. Mitchel Beauchamp, chairman of the MTDB’s Railway Subcommittee.

There are many obstacles in reopening the Desert Line, chiefly costs. According to 1996 estimates from the San Diego Association of Governments, repairs to the rail line could be anywhere from $24.6 million for basic service and $105.4 million for modernization and other amenities, Limber said.

Limber hopes with a small reserve of MTDB money for the railway, private investment and matching federal and state money, the MTDB can raise the capital to repair and rehabilitate the line.

However, RailAmerica, which moves freight on other sections of the SD & AE; Railway and on the Mexican line, hasn’t expressed any interest in restoring the Desert Line between Campo and Plaster City, Limber said.

No serious development of the Desert Line can occur until after the Baja California government awards a long-term contract for operation of the Mexican leg. The bidding process for that long-term contract is going on right now, he said.

Another obstacle is the fact the city of Chula Vista has development plans that call for removal of track in a crucial area between San Diego and Tijuana. The MTDB is already studying the matter, Limber said.

Beauchamp said there are many important benefits to restoring the rail tack.

“Reopening this eastern connection would allow the competitive relationship between the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe giants to be focused on San Diego. The tariffs to move freight into San Diego would drop precipitously with competition,” he said.

As prices drop, some cargo now transported by truck would switch to rail, helping to relieve highway congestion, Beauchamp said.

Those statements were echoed by Mike Hix, a senior transportation planner for Sandag.

“It has a lot of benefit to help not only the Port of San Diego grow and bring products through the port that can be shipped out through the region, but also shipping products that now go out on trucks from the maquiladora industry,” Hix said. “It could be shipped just as easily on a rail line that runs right through that maquiladora area, as well.”

Combined with upgrades to the port, that could turn San Diego into an attractive alternative to shipping goods that now go to Los Angeles, where they are transferred to rail, he said.

Hix noted the whole process of rebuilding the railway has been on hold for a number of years. Everyone has been waiting for Mexican operations to sort itself out, he said.

Filner, D-San Diego, has also been a strong supporter of the SD & AE; Railway.

“This is the single most important step the region could take for economic diversity and prosperity in the decades to come. This ‘little 100-mile choo-choo’ could literally transform the economy of this region,” he said.

Currently, San Diego is not a viable commercial port since there is no rail connection to anywhere except Los Angeles, Filner said. A railroad to the east would transform San Diego into a major maritime center, he said.

In the first few years, the railway could provide thousands of jobs and millions of dollars. After that, the railway could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.

But a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, reiterated the congressman’s continued opposition to the railway. Chief among his concerns is that having an American train dip into Mexico makes controlling the border much more difficult.

“We have consulted the Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and several border enforcement agencies to see what problems may exist if this railway was in operation, and they have told us, in writing, that this railway would be a vehicle for illegal immigration into the United States,” said Michael Harrison, press secretary for Hunter.


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