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Do you want to know how a controversial company tasked with rebuilding a rail line along the Mexican border is actually going to construct and finance that line? Your guess right now is pretty much as good as the public officials who put them in charge.
Two years ago the Metropolitan Transit System allowed Pacific Imperial Railroad to try rebuilding the Desert Line while the agency collected half a million dollars every six months on the lease.
But its effort to rebuild the 70-mile stretch of defunct rail in southeastern San Diego County has been mired in conflict, allegations of mismanagement and claims county transportation officials were careless with a valuable public asset.
Two congressmen on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee even chimed in officially, saying they had concerns about the company’s financing and MTS’ actions.
And now MTS refuses to release documents that would answer some of the most basic questions about the project, how Pacific Imperial actually intends to rebuild the line and what its business strategy is.
The agency is withholding the company’s reconstruction plan because of concerns about terrorism – seriously.
“The Desert Line Reconstruction Plan records consist of sensitive security information relating to freight transportation facilities and operations,” reads a statement from a MTS spokesman.
And Pacific Imperial’s business plan is also not being released to the public. MTS spokesman Rob Schupp cited privacy issues.
So if the public is not going to be able to see how Pacific Imperial plans to construct and finance this portion of the so-called Impossible Railroad, they’ll have to trust their elected officials – who do have some access – are paying close enough attention to ensure it is, well, possible.
But this week Schupp said none of the MTS board members had so far viewed the business plan “although they have been informed that they have the opportunity to do so.”
Schupp also noted board members are briefed on all aspects of the project and all documents are available for their review.
A spokeswoman for David Alvarez, a San Diego City Council member who sits on the MTS board, said last week that they had requested copies of the documents.
MTS Board Member Mary Salas, who sits on the Chula Vista City Council, said Friday that she had not yet seen the plans and thinks “it is unusual that something like that is not a matter of public record.”
“I have no idea … why it should not be a matter for public record,” Salas said of the business plan in particular.
It is unclear whether any of the board members have seen a full reconstruction plan, but in an interview Thursday, Pacific Imperial head Donald Stoecklein indicated that the fact there are now essentially two reconstruction plans may be complicating the situation.
The first plan he described as mostly “triage” work along the track that’s necessary to adhere to the terms of the lease set forth by MTS. That lease, which demands the $500,000 payment every six months, also includes specific milestones that Pacific Imperial must meet on its way to opening the line.
If it misses the milestones or misses a payment, then MTS gets the line back from Pacific Imperial and all of the associated studies with it.
Then Stoecklein said there was another plan for a more complete reconstruction. The estimates for full construction run anywhere from $60 to $100 million, he said. The plan is to eventually better connect manufacturers in northern Mexico with a rail freight route through the U.S. and into lucrative eastern markets.
When I asked Stoecklein why the documents were not public, he paused for a minute and said he would have to think about it.
Andrew Keatts contributed reporting.