Paused at the intersection of 16 de Septiembre and Francisco Villa in downtown Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Carolina and her 14-year-old daughter were frustrated. As a crowd built up around the pair, a long Ferromex train rolled by on the tracks in front of the pedestrians filled with new automobiles.
“We are here losing time. We have things to do. I don’t remember how many times it’s been,” Carolina said of the afternoon trains that paralyze downtown Juárez and keep people from moving. In this instance, Carolina said she and her daughter were shopping for the girl’s quinceanera dress, the ritual gown that marks a young Mexican female’s coming of age. The teen’s eyes sparkled and danced at mention of her upcoming 15th birthday celebration.
Seemingly, the train was endless as freight car after freight car chugged by, virtually all filled with brand new autos, almost as if teasing U.S. presidential contender Donald Trump’s remarks about the migration of Detroit south. According to a report in El Diario de Juárez, Mexico exported $75 billion in autos to the United States last year alone.
Suddenly, the Juárez train halted. Then the daredevils sprang into action, squeezing and climbing between the freight cars to get to the other side of the track as Carolina and her daughter looked on.
Mostly younger men but some women too, the risk-takers were practically playing chicken with the train. With no warning, it would lurch forward or backward and suddenly stop and shake.
FNS observed this scene several times during the spring, including once when an older man slipped and fell while slipping through the freight cars. Blocking street passage for up to 40 minutes at a time, the train stretches for blocks and blocks along Francisco Villa, past the bull ring and up to the U.S. border.
Modesta Ramos and Carlos Rojas were among pedestrians who stood and watched the daredevils, preferring to wait for the train to safely depart. No signals or officials were on hand to warn people, Rojas observed. Ramos said she was once held up in a car by the stopped train for half an hour while transporting a sick relative to medical attention. Another problem, she added, is that the train traffic through downtown Juárez coincides with times when border assembly plant (maquiladora) workers are going home.
“They should have (appropriate) times for crossings,” the Juárez resident asserted. “Right now, it goes on when the maquiladora workers end their shifts.”
The good news for pedestrians is that an underground passageway constructed with funding from Ferromex is nearing completion at 16th de Septiembre and Francisco Villa. For many years, the city government of Juárez insisted that commercial freight train traffic through downtown Juárez be confined to late evening or early morning hours.
But under the administration of former Mayor Enrique Serrano, who recently lost his gubernatorial bid, the city government negotiated an agreement with Ferromex last year for the construction of underground pedestrian tunnels, allowing freight trains to move freely in the downtown corridor at any hour. Workers at the site told FNS they expected to be finished with the 16th de Septiembre and Francisco Villa project sometime in the next four to six weeks. If the pedestrian tunnel in fact opens in time for this year’s monsoon season, which typically begins in July, it remains to be seen if it will withstand flooding or suffer an inundation like the vehicle underpass on Avenida Juárez nearby experienced after it opened in 2014.
The wait at the downtown Juárez train tracks is just one small part of many transportation bottlenecks currently gripping the Paso del Norte borderland as a new round of development and commercial expansion overtakes the region. In mid-2016 Juárez’s sister city of El Paso, Texas, might be even earn a new moniker, changing from the Sun City to Orange Barrel City — or something to that effect.
Multiple road closures, lane restrictions and packed thoroughfares are the lot of several projects all proceeding at the same time — Interstate 10 improvements, the Border West Expressway touted as an alternative to Interstate 10, and the new street car that will run between downtown El Paso and the cluster of bars and eateries near the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) known as the Cincinnati Entertainment District.
An adventurous excursion to downtown El Paso these days is akin to navigating an obstacle course. Weaving in and out of barrels, the writer’s car was nearly splashed with asphalt recently as a road crew worked away with no real barrier between heavy equipment and passing traffic only a few feet away.
On Interstate 10, a highway packed with trucks plying the U.S.-Mexico border trade as well as passenger vehicles, gruesome accidents are becoming par for the course. On May 23, for example, a semi-truck crashed into several cars and trapped a vehicle carrying Virginia Maldonado de Garcia and Esther Castaneda Alvarez. The women perished as flames engulfed the accident scene, and five other motorists were injured in an incident that closed down the highway for more than 12 hours.
On the evening of June 16, Interstate 10 was shut down for nine hours after a pedestrian was struck by several vehicles, including a big rig. Interstate 10 is frequently congested between Sunland Park Drive and Executive Center; electronic billboards inform motorists of expected travel times along the freeway.
To get an idea of the volume of traffic on Interstate 10 in El Paso, consider that 60,000 vehicles were measured going eastbound and 66,000 westbound at the Ressler exit during a 24-hour period in 2014.
On El Paso’s West Side, many motorists are attempting to avoid Interstate 10 by using the long Mesa Street main drag, which now resembles a moving parking lot during peak driving times. Drivers traveling across town might want to consider Loop 375, the Transmountain Highway, as an alternative. Reportedly, El Paso officials are adjusting traffic signals on Mesa to accommodate the extra vehicles.
District 1 El Paso City Council Rep Peter Svarzbein is asking for public suggestions on how to overcome traffic problems, suggesting himself that locals use carpooling or public transportation as options for reducing congestion.
Running along the border and the Rio Grande, Paisano Drive that connects El Paso with neighboring Sunland Park, N.M., is now shut down from Executive Center Drive to Sunland Park so contractors can finish the Texas Department of Transportation’s Border West Expressway in El Paso, a 5.6 mile portion of which will be a toll road. The expected eight-month closure has virtually cut-off El Paso’s historic Buena Vista neighborhood and made access to Sunland Park from El Paso difficult and time-consuming.
Drivers using Sunland Park Drive, which connects the two cities, will encounter heavy congestion during peak hours. On a recent day, the reporter noticed motorists weaving through a gas station at Sunland Park Drive and Doniphan in an effort to skirt the bottleneck. Located near the closed Sunland Park exit from Paisano, the Carousel Convenience Store has seen more than a fifty percent drop in business, according to co-owner Paloma Rodriguez.
Another popular Sunland Park destination, Ardovino’s Desert Crossing restaurant and the adjoining Saturday morning farmers’ market, is getting by thanks to loyal customers and people willing to spend the extra time traveling from El Paso, owner Robert Ardovino told FNS earlier this spring.
“Sunland Park Drive and Doniphan is chaos, constant traffic,” Ardovino said. “It’s unfortunate.”
Meantime, other looming projects portend at least more temporary congestion in the coming years on the West Side. For starters, the former Asarco smelter site situated between Sunland Park and downtown El Paso is viewed as prime land for a big expansion of UTEP. Also on the drawing board for the West Side is a 22-story building complex called Shadow Mountain Development.
Planned for Shadow Mountain Drive, a winding road that transitions into Sunland Park Drive, the proposed development is stirring controversy. In a recent full-page display ad published in El Paso Inc., Shadow Mountain promoters claimed the building, envisioned to contain 219 luxury hotel rooms and 228 luxury apartments, would yield $137 million in development spending and create more than 1,000 jobs.
The complex is slated to include 42,000 square feet of retail space, a swimming pool deck and a 715-car parking garage. Comparing anticipated traffic from Shadow Mountain Development with hypothetical flows that could stem from other commercial development in the existing C-1 zone, boosters contend the upscale development will reduce traffic by 40 percent.
Shadow Mountain is planned for a primarily residential part of El Paso where hotels are few and far between, and is located long distances from the city’s principal attractions-UTEP, downtown, the Chihuahuas’ baseball stadium, etc.
Both pro and anti-Shadow Mountain Development petitions are posted on Change.org, with supporters emphasizing the purported economic benefits and opponents charging greater traffic congestion, light pollution, safety hazards, lower property values and ruined mountain views will result from a high rise.
According to the El Paso Inc. ad, the project was to be discussed at a Thursday meeting scheduled for Western Hills Elementary School and will get an El Paso City Council hearing on July 12. If Shadow Mountain gets the green light, it will rise as the second highest building in the Sun City.
Back in Juárez, meanwhile, noticeably thicker traffic is another sign of the city’s rebound from both the Great Violence and the Great Recession of a few years back. The increase is so great that the local Municipal Research and Planning Institute has now declared Avenida Tecnologico and 13 other major streets mainly located in the so-called Golden Zone, an area which includes the U.S. Consulate, over-swamped with traffic, with Avenida Tecnologico alone used by 79,506 vehicles every day.
Quoted in El Diario, Chihuahua state tax official Rene Franco Ruiz said 560,234 vehicles were now registered in Juárez, a fleet of wheels that’s grown by 27,842 during the past year and registering a 5.23 percent increase from last year.
Additional sources: Kfoxtv.com, June 19, 2016. Article by Alexandria Rodriguez. El Paso Inc, June 12-18, 2016. KVIA, May 24, 25 and 26, 2016; June 16 and 17, 2016. Articles and stories by Joe Villasna, Darren Hunt, Stephanie Guadian and staff. KINT/Entravision, May 25 and 26, 2016. El Diario de Juarez and El Diario de El Paso, July 7, 2015; June 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 2016. Articles by Juan de Dios Olivas, Juan Carlos Raygoza, Diego Murgia, Luis Pablo Hernandez, Horacio Carrasco, and editorial staff. Televisajuarez.tv/noticias, November 19, 2015.