From San Antonio Express-News
The East Kelly RailPort, a $35 million redevelopment project at Port San Antonio, has the potential to turn the former Kelly AFB into a global distribution center utilizing ground and air transportation.
But nearby residents are asking themselves what, if any, are the costs to the community.
"I think right now we are just very concerned because it's going to bring in more planes, more trains and trucks," said Jill Johnston, environmental justice organizer for the Southwest Workers Union, or SWU.
The grass-roots, membership-based organization represents more than 2,000 school workers, youth and community members, according to its Web site. The group's goal is to help build coalitions and networks for those who may have trouble getting their opinions heard.
Johnston said the people affected by additional rail traffic are those living in communities directly around Port San Antonio, formerly known as KellyUSA. She said they have a history of being ignored.
"We're very concerned about any sort of expansion of the rail yard at East Kelly because Union Pacific has a history of negligence towards its community and neighbors," Johnston said.
She pointed to derailments around the city in recent years, one of which involved hazardous chemicals and caused deaths in 2004.
Another derailment occurred earlier this year when two trains collided head-on, resulting in injuries.
But the new RailPort project is zoned in such a way that no hazardous chemicals will be allowed to enter the area, said Joe Saenz, chief engineer for the port authority.
District 5 City Councilwoman Patti Radle said she is eager for new trade and business but does not want to neglect the concerns of the neighborhood residents. She said Frio City Road has nearly five train crossings, and the noise of whistles also is a concern.
"We have so much rail traffic going through our district already," Radle said. "It really hampers the quality of life."
Radle said "quiet zones" are too expensive because the city is required to pay for the necessary crossing equipment that allows trains to not use whistles, so an increase in trains definitely will mean an increase in noise.
Johnston and Radle agreed that the neighborhoods affected need to be kept informed.
Saenz said the authority is doing as much community outreach as possible, citing monthly neighborhood association meetings attended by the authority's community liaison, Leticia Rodriguez. She said the authority scheduled seven meetings last year with a variety of neighborhood groups, specifically about the zoning of the RailPort property.
"Every time I do a community presentation, they raise traffic congestion concerns," Saenz said.
Saenz added that the city, in conjunction with the authority, is working on two separate road projects — one at Frio City Road and the other at the Dunton Street entrance of East Kelly — that should limit the impact of the RailPort construction.
The Frio City Road ramp will take truck traffic generated from the RailPort off community streets, Saenz said. The new ramp will connect Cupples Road to Gen. Hudnell Drive. Saenz said the $3.2 million project should take about a year to complete, depending on weather conditions.
The second is another $3 million-plus project to add water detention at the intersection of Dunton Street, Cupples Road and Quintana Road. All in all, Saenz said, the port infrastructure needs a major investment.
"We're doing things on East Kelly that coincide with the improvements through the RailPort development," he said.
What some consider a concern others consider an opportunity. Don Wittschiebe, development director at Titan Industrial Development, envisions the business park teeming with activity. Titan signed a long-term ground lease deal with the Port Authority of San Antonio to develop 62 acres of property through a three-phase plan for the RailPort project. The first phase begins this fall.
The three phases will include the demolition of obsolete buildings, the building of new warehouses and new rail lines to serve Union Pacific's South San Antonio Rail Yard. Wittschiebe said the RailPort will be an integral stop along international trade routes between China and Mexico.
"This will be a thriving economic center," he said.
At this point, however, without a definite number of tenants signed up with Titan, the number of trains coming through is not possible to determine, officials said.
Wittschiebe and Saenz both called the new rail lines constructed by Titan a positive development for the surrounding communities. The lines will divert train traffic going to the south rail yard. The trains no longer will have to travel the length around the property but can be diverted through the RailPort, lessening one final trip that involves community lines.
Quintana Neighborhood Association President Vincent Jaskinia said his neighborhood supports the development. He said community meetings attended by Rodriguez helped with the decision and he sees how the new business will help the city and the community.
Supporting development is something the community wants to do as long as residents stay informed, Radle said.
"The opportunity for trade, increased international trade, is great," she said, "as is having the opportunity to expand our relationship with other countries, especially Mexico.
"I don't want to come across as a naysayer on the whole opportunity, but it comes down to a very local concern. In the process, it's very important to bring the neighbors along with you."