Desert Line railway map. Image via MTS
Desert Line railway map. Image via MTS

The Metropolitan Transit System Board of Directors on Thursday approved a binational agreement that will clear the way for rebuilding a mostly unused 70-mile stretch of railway in the southeastern San Diego County desert.

Carrizo Gorge Trestles. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When the project between Campo and Imperial County is completed, the Desert Line will connect about 1,500 factories in and near Tijuana — known as maquiladoras — to U.S. rail facilities. Right now, movement of products into this country is done by trucks.

Work has long been delayed because of questions of financing and security since 40 miles of the line extend into Mexico.

San Diego officials contend that $6 billion in economic activity is lost annually because of delays faced by truckers trying to cross the border into this country.

Jerry Sanders of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce said there is $2.1 million in daily trade between San Diego and Tijuana, and infrastructure is critical to the supply chain.

He told reporters that “existing freight corridors are strained and the bottlenecks at our commercial (border crossings) cause unpredictable wait times for truckers.”

“The rehabilitation of the cross-border railroad provides a much-needed alternative for moving goods through one of the most vibrant centers of commerce in the world,” he said. “The Desert Line will provide a vital route that takes trucks off our freeways and increases shipping capacity that gets goods to marketplaces far more efficiently.”

Sanders said the increased shipping capacity will help business officials attract more companies and investment to the region.

The rail line starts in Tijuana, runs east to Tecate, crosses the border near Campo and continues east to Plaster City in Imperial County. Baja California Railroad plans to spend $60-70 million to repair 57 bridges and 17 tunnels beginning this summer, according to the MTS.

A transportation hub will also be built in Imperial County.

San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts said 6,200 trucks cross into the U.S. daily through the border crossings at San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and Tecate, and the wait time can last up to two hours.

Reducing the number of trucks will ease wait times and reduce air pollution, Roberts said.

“This is a historic win for the San Diego region,” said Roberts, also MTS vice chairman. “The Desert Line agreement achieves a significant commitment to binational economic improvements and cooperation rarely seen in San Diego. Additionally, 135,000 cars and 6,200 trucks idling at our land ports of entry each day negatively affect our air quality. An operational Desert Line will help reduce vehicle emissions at the border and help this region meet its emission reduction goal.”

Work on the 60 miles of track between Tecate and Coyote Wells in Imperial County is expected to begin this summer. It will be overseen by Baja Rail, which is incorporated in the United States and in Mexico. Baja Rail is a well-respected operator of the rail lines in Mexico that connect to the Desert Line.

“This joint project has been anticipated for a long time,” said Fernando Beltran, president of Baja Rail. “It will help our maquiladoras continue to thrive. It will help our economy. And it will stimulate a new cooperative business relationship between our two countries.”

Work on the line will include repaired bridges and tunnels and improvements to track. Once completed, it will allow trains up to 30 cars to travel on the line from Mexico to Coyote Wells. There, cars will be assembled into 100-car trains for delivery to the Union Pacific Railroad in Plaster City.

To accommodate this activity, a new intermodal facility will be built in Coyote Wells by PIR.

“We have worked very hard with our partners in Mexico to realize this dream,” said Arturo Alemany, executive board member for Pacific Imperial Railroad. “This is a joint effort that will create a new cost-effective option for international businesses to ship products, such as automobiles, from Mexico to the eastern United States.”

Details of the new deal include:

  • Baja Rail and PIR will pay for the cost to reconstruct and operate the Desert Line (estimated at $60 million to $70 million).
  • Construction is set to begin in summer 2016.
  • Baja Rail will oversee the railroad repair, maintenance and operational obligations for 60 miles of the Desert Line
  • PIR will build an intermodal facility near Coyote Wells in Imperial County to load freight and provide space to build the necessary 100-car trains that can be delivered to the Union Pacific main line network.
  • MTS will continue to earn a minimum annual guarantee of $1 million annually related to the Desert Line lease.
  • MTS will receive 7 percent of gross revenue if greater than $1 million.
  • Extending the deadline by 12 months for all milestones (initial repairs, test train operations, limited operations, full-scale repairs and operations).

— City News Service contributed to this report.