The reopening of the 78-year-old San Diego & Arizona Railroad--a longtime goal of San Diego and Tijuana boosters who seek a direct railroad link to the Eastern United States--has been given new life by the privatization of Mexico's national railroad.
Though the proposal is fraught with obstacles, the Mexican government is auctioning off a lease to operate the 44-mile Baja California portion of the line, a concession that should set in motion the financing needed to complete a rail corridor.
The 131-mile line runs from San Diego down into Baja California and back across the border to El Centro in California's Imperial Valley. There it would connect with Union Pacific lines to Phoenix, Tucson and points east.
Not only would San Diego's port become an option for container carriers wanting to bypass the congested Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, but the port-cum-rail line would also link Tijuana and the booming maquiladora industry more directly with markets and suppliers in the Eastern U.S. and Mexico.
Such a rail system would presumably be bad news for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and critics say it would become a conduit for illegal drugs and immigrants. But the fast-growing San Diego-Tijuana region sees it as a major economic boon.
"This could become a clear symbol of how cooperation between the United States and Mexico can produce economic benefits for both," said U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego), a longtime advocate of the line who lobbied government officials here this week.
The only bidder for the 44-mile lease thus far is RailTex, the San Antonio-based company that already controls the U.S. ends of the San Diego & Arizona line, and which now runs only limited freight service from San Diego to Tecate. The Mexican government is expected to award it the 25-year lease in October.
Winning the lease could move RailTex closer to reopening the entire railway if other conditions fall into place, including public financial support and a commitment from rail giant Union Pacific to serve customers, RailTex Vice President Greg Petersen said Wednesday.
But opponents of the train, including Filner's colleague, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), say it would merely provide another option for traffickers of illegal drugs and immigrants. And the economic benefit would not come close to justifying the enormous public cost of expanded port and customs facilities, Hunter said.