Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
A public meeting about a proposed overpass at the intersection of Frio City Road and South Zarzamora Street turned contentious Tuesday night, with several residents shouting at City staff and saying the overpass would disrupt nearby neighborhoods and businesses.
Neighborhood residents have long sought a solution to traffic backups caused by freight trains crossing Zarzamora Street at Frio City Road on the Southwest side. Union Pacific Railroad officials estimate more than 20 freight trains cross that intersection daily.
The voter-approved 2017 municipal bond issue allocates $10 million to a fix. Residents wanted the City to consider an underpass at the spot, and sought more details on how exactly the project would affect homes and businesses immediately around the intersection.
But after considering four options, the City has recommended an overpass with frontage roads, Transportation and Capital Improvements (TCI) Director Mike Frisbie told a crowd of more than 100 people at Lowell Middle School.
Numerous people at the meeting, feeling that the unpopular overpass idea was being forced upon the neighborhood, got up and left before the meeting ended.
"We might as well leave. They're not telling us anything!" one man yelled.
The Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) is waiting to see whether the project can get additional federal funds. Midnight Wednesday is the deadline for AAMPO to accept public comments on this and several other projects it has submitted for federal funding consideration.
Frisbie said it would cost $27 million and take four years to build an overpass. He added that the overpass would maintain current traffic patterns, reduce wait times, and improve safety for crossing motorists and cyclists, including emergency first responders.
The development of an overpass would result in the acquisition of 16 residential and commercial properties, a smaller impact than other options, according to City staff.
City staff recently had evaluated a South Zarzamora underpass at the railroad crossing, but determined that would be a much bigger undertaking, costing $60 million, taking seven years to build, and impacting 42 residential and business properties.
Frisbie said the project would also necessitate construction of a temporary bypass railroad, a new railroad bridge, and relocation of utilities. An underpass would be susceptible to flooding in a major rain storm, he added.
Because the intersection of South Zaramora and Frio City Road forms an oblique angle, Union Pacific railroad would not approve an underpass, Frisbie said.
"What Union Pacific is looking for, for safety reasons, is a crossing at a roughly 90-degree angle," Frisbie said. "The reason for that is if you have someone driving [on Zarzamora] lose control, at this angle, they're going to hit the bridge or the railroad tracks overhead.
"The railroad will not approve an underpass that is not close to 90 degrees."
Many residents at the meeting were angry, saying they felt City staffers were not listening to their concerns, and that the City was not more forthcoming about specific properties that would be acquired for any bypass.
More residents said an overpass would be intrusive and ugly, that it would reduce access to other area businesses, and that it could still cause traffic backups on Frio City Road.
Neighbors are particularly worried about the fate of established, family-owned businesses in the area, such as Oscar's Taco House, Ozuna's Automotive, Durangos Restaurant, and Nogalitos Gear, all of which have barely survived local economic crises such as the closure of nearby Kelly Air Force Base.
Residents concerned about the possibility of an overpass have gathered more than 500 signatures on a petition opposing that option.
Frisbie said that the City would talk with each affected individual property owner as the design phase – expected to start in April – unfolds. He added that every property owner will be offered fair market value.
That pledge was not enough to satisfy the audience.
"Businesses are going to be impacted," resident Anabelle Valle said. "They are very concerned and they need to know what's going on."
Resident Maria Velazquez said local history provides examples of overpasses adversely affecting neighboring businesses, even if commercial property owners were given options and assistance with relocation.
"It makes a big differences to businesses if you're not projecting their profit loss in the future, what they are losing in the future," she said.
Joe Gallegos is one of several residents working to rally the neighborhood in scrutinizing the project.
"Part of the problem, with all due respect, is the lack of trust on the part of the residents toward City staff mainly because throughout these efforts, you've been identifying it as an overpass project," Gallegos said, leading residents to believe other options weren't being considered.
Fernando Velazquez, another organizer for community members concerned about the project, said that residents have waited long enough for a solution to the traffic tie-ups and want the fix to be done right.
Velazquez also said he was puzzled how the City could accept an overpass when it has been pushing for beautification and equity in older parts of the inner city. He also said he felt the City misled the community into thinking residents had an official say in what option was selected.
"A bridge does not beautify it, and if you're going to submit only one project to the [AAMPO], then come out here and [tell] us that both projects were submitted and that the community actually has an option ... we don't," he said.
Frisbie called the overpass the more feasible option: "We can't go out for $60 million, but we can do a good project, a beautiful project, for $27 million."