LAREDO, January 25 - Plans to build a high speed passenger rail service from San Antonio to Monterrey could be extended to Mexico City, a congressman from Nuevo León tells the Guardian.
Diputado Marco Antonio González says permits and right of way acquisition have already been acquired between Monterrey and the Laredo-Colombia Solidarity Bridge. González said he is now working on the same for Monterrey to Querétaro.
“At the moment, the only international passenger line out of the United States runs to Montreal, Canada. We want to have the first line on the southern border, in order to make our countries more integrated,” González told the Guardian.
“There is already a high speed passenger line between Mexico City and Querétaro. We are going to lobby before 2018 for a line from Querétaro to Monterrey. So, basically, you could then get a service from Mexico City to San Antonio.”
On Jan. 16, González accompanied U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar and Texas Department of Transportation officials on a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “It was a very positive meeting,” González said. “We are very excited about the project. There will be a study of the project in Texas this year and, hopefully, we can start crystalizing the project from 2015. By 2018, we want the Monterrey to Laredo-Colombia line built and to start the Monterrey to Querétaro line.”
González said the state of Nuevo León has been working on the Monterrey to Laredo-Colombia rail project for the past four years. He said it would cost approximately $1.5 billion U.S. dollars. “We had this project started four years ago without knowing whether there would be any interest from the U.S. Originally we thought it would only be for freight, not passengers. It was the U.S. that changed the focus for us. They had an interest in the transportation of both freight and people.”
Asked how much support there is in Mexico for the project, González replied: “There is 100 percent support for this in Mexico.”
Congressman Cuellar said this is a good time to be discussing major rail projects in Mexico.
“In February, the Mexican Congress is going to be looking at rail modernization. Right now there are four companies that control everything, they have a monopoly. The discussion is going to be about opening things up, allowing the private sector to get involved,” Cuellar said.
Cuellar said he felt “very, very, good” about the San Antonio to Monterrey project. Asked how much interest Secretary Foxx showed in the project, Cuellar said: “The secretary was really interested to know how deep the interest of the Mexicans was. My response was that the Mexicans already have the right of way, the permits, so therefore there is a lot of interest there.”
Cuellar explained to the Guardian how the idea for a cross-border rail line came about. He said back in 2008 Congress approved $5 million for a study on the possibility of high speed passenger rail between Oklahoma City and San Antonio. In Texas, the studies were to be conducted by TxDOT with routes to include Dallas, Austin and Houston. Cuellar was not pleased the studies were going to stop at San Antonio and not include the south Texas border region. He succeeded in getting an amendment passed that would include a study of high speed rail on the South Texas border.
Cuellar said from what he has heard a route from Corpus Christi to Brownsville has been eliminated from the study. However, he said TxDOT will be studying San Antonio to Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley.
“The Texas Department of Transportation has already looked at different routes and they have already said some of them are not feasible. The two remaining sites, and I hope that we can do both, are the Valley and Laredo. The Valley has the population. Laredo has 250,000. The Valley has 800,000 and when you include the folks from across the river it is a lot more. So, the Valley has the population, so I hope they can have the connection also.”
Cuellar said although Laredo’s population is much less than the Valley’s, it made sense to have the San Antonio-Monterrey route going through Laredo because of geography and geo-politics. “Nuevo Leon has a little strip of about 17, 18 miles where they connect to the U.S. border. They already have the permit. They already have the right of way to go from Monterrey to Colombia-Laredo. So, we are hoping we can connect San Antonio, Laredo and Monterrey but at the same time I want the other leg to be here in the Valley.”
TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer explained where her agency was at. “Since 2012, TxDOT has been studying the feasibility of passenger rail service from Oklahoma to South Texas. Last week, the agency asked our federal partners for $400,000 to expand this exploration to include passenger rail down to Mexico,” Beyer said. “While the impact of such rail service through south Texas to Mexico is not in the scope of the current Texas/Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study, we believe additional funding could address this possibility. It’s premature to speculate on its feasibility or the route it might follow.”
Congressman Cuellar was asked about the symbolism of building a high speed rail line into Mexico.
“Both symbolically and practically it sends a big message. Practically, it shows there is a major connection between Monterrey and San Antonio. We know business people and tourists that want to come and go to both cities. We need to be able to move business people and tourists in a fast and safe way. That can only improve the economies of two areas that are so important to the U.S. and Mexico. Remember, we do $1.3 billion in trade every day with Mexico,” Cuellar said.
“Symbolically, it is important because for many years all we heard was talk of putting walls up and more and more security measures. Now we are talking about putting a high speed train between two large economies. I think this symbolically means the U.S. and Mexico is getting closer.”
Asked when the project might get going, Cuellar said: “The Mexicans are already way ahead of us. They have the right of way, they have everything in place. They are saying 2018. That is pretty ambitious. On the U.S. side it is going to take a little bit of time. By the end of this year we should have the study of the border. If you add Monterrey to the study it is going to be a little bit longer. If the studies show this can be profitable then I think the private sector will come in and we will let the bidding start and see who wants to do this. The federal government will not build this. I think you could see San Antonio to Monterrey complete in less than ten years, best case scenario.”
Cuellar added that the ironic thing about the potential project is that although South Texas was not, originally, going to be studied it could end up being the first leg to have a high speed rail line constructed.
“The last part that got added, through an amendment, might be the first leg to be done, rather than from Oklahoma. I think that is the ironic thing. We came in at the end, we were the cow wagon and now we are locomotive.”