SANTA TERESA, N.M. – Months ahead of schedule, Union Pacific’s new $400-million rail yard quietly opened last week on 2,200 acres just west of the Santa Teresa Airport.
They called it a “soft opening” for the inland port, allowing trainloads and truckloads of goods that normally would use Union Pacific’s El Paso Alfalfa rail yard to use the Strauss Rail Yard instead.
The intermodal facility will handle freight trains loaded with containers from Asia and the West Coast. Once unloaded, the cargo will be trucked to U.S. destinations or maquila plants in Juárez and elsewhere in Mexico via the El Paso or Santa Teresa ports of entry.
It’s called an inland port because it relieves the overloaded operations at Los Angeles and Long Beach of the customs procedures that normally would take place on the West Coast.
And it will handle truckloads of containerized freight from El Paso and Mexico bound for U.S. cities by rail.
Operations at the yard will be ramping up until the official opening on May 28.
El Paso’s foreign trade zone director Joe Quinones said Union Pacific’s early completion of the Strauss Yard is going to catch the import-export community by surprise.
“It’s very short notice for the import community,” Quinones said. “Brokers are asking how are we going to prepare documentation, and where are the goods going to be arriving?”
The bonded foreign trade cargo that would normally arrive in El Paso aboard eastbound trains will now come to El Paso warehouses by truck. That’s going to be a big change for Santa Teresa and El Paso.
“Going forward, we can expect 500 to 800 trucks a day,” said Jerry Pacheco, executive director of Santa Teresa’s International Business Accelerator. “A lot of the traffic in the Alfalfa yard in Downtown El Paso will be switching immediately over to the Santa Teresa rail yard.”
Those trucks, he said, will come from plants and logistics firms in El Paso,. There will also be trucks from Mexico coming to pick up or drop off merchandise.
That’s good news for New Mexico, but not for the roads and bridges in the Santa Teresa area, he said.
“If you’re on Artcraft Road near the peak hours for the Santa Teresa crossing and you’re trying to get on I-10, sometimes you’ll wait forever,” he said. “That’s going to get worse.”
Santa Teresa’s Airport Road, which is likely to see a lot more truck traffic, is already “falling apart,” Pacheco said.
“I felt like John the Baptist, screaming like a crazy man at the last legislative session, trying to get the money to reconstruct Airport Road,” he said. “But we didn’t get it.”
Pacheco said he’s also worried about what will happen at the Santa Teresa Port of Entry because 30 percent to 40 percent of the truck traffic will be coming from Mexico, and many of those trucks will try to return via the Santa Teresa port.
“We only have one southbound commercial lane, and that is often clogged by those old junk cars that are being exported south to Mexico,” he said. “If you add 200 or 300 southbound trucks a day, that is going to complicate things.”
Customs and Border Protection, he said, has offered assurances that it can handle the traffic.
“I hope they’re right,” Pacheco said, “but our MO for the past 12 years has been promoting Santa Teresa as the port of choice for commercial traffic because of the quickness with which we can cross both northbound and southbound trucks.
“We sure don’t want to be in a position where we’re not keeping that reputation safe.”
Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt said the company isn’t worried about Santa Teresa’s infrastructure at this time.
He said Union Pacific doesn’t have truck traffic projections for this year, but the rail yard will have a “capacity of 225,000 container lifts annually.”
As for the business the Alfalfa yard in Downtown El Paso will keep, Hunt said, “The El Paso yard will handle manifest traffic moving forward.
“Manifest is all other types of box cars, grain cars, etc., everything except intermodal.”
Union Pacific was expected to complete the Strauss Yard in 2015, so this month’s soft opening is months and months ahead of schedule.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.