More than six years after the implementation of a state law that allowed Hidalgo County to create a commuter rail district, county commissioners discussed dissolving it at a Commissioners Court session last month.
They didn't end up doing so — at least in part because they can't — but the fact the court even entertained the idea says much about the state of commuter rail in the county.
"It's kind of a standstill right now," said Benjamin Worsham, a member of the rail district board.
Proponents contend a commuter rail system would be part of a dynamic transit system that could bring colonia residents to town centers, allow college students to do homework while commuting to class and even connect to a proposed rail line to Oklahoma City. They say it's a far-sighted plan for one of the country's fastest-growing areas to be proactive in its infrastructure needs.
"I would like to see (a rail system) in the future for my kids because I know it's the future," said Roy Tijerina, the board's secretary-treasurer.
Ever optimistic, the board's chairman, Jim Edge, believes a self-sustaining, successful rail system is attainable in the near future.
"The reality is we could get the rail up and running very quickly if we could get over financial and technical obstacles," he said.
But opponents balked at the nearly $310 million a consulting group estimated the project would cost in a 2011 feasibility study.
"The suppositions that people have made that we're planning for the future, it's financial suicide," said Frank Travers, a member of the board who opposes a rail system and frequently clashes with other members.
"It would (be a good thing) if it didn't bankrupt our government," he added.
Intra-board politics have gotten personal. In interviews with The Monitor,Travers and his allies in the Objective Watchers of the Legal System watchdog group accused Edge, who is a Lutheran pastor, of lying to county commissioners about the project's chances of turning a profit.
"You know the worst part about this? I mean, the really worst part about this, for me?" OWLS core member Virginia Townsend asked in a phone interview. "Jim Edge is a pastor. I didn't think pastors were supposed to lie."
But for now, the intra-board bickering is moot. The county hasn't spent a dollar on any rail development. No track has been laid. The board, who are all appointed by county commissioners and County Judge Ramon Garcia, serve as volunteers. The 2011 feasibility study that supporters tout as the board's greatest achievement to date was paid for with federal stimulus money. The board only meets sporadically, with no tangible short-term goals.
"We're just sitting there," Tijerina said. "We're just waiting for some higher-ups to give us some use."
The board lacks the authority to levy property taxes, effectively meaning it must depend on the county or other organizations or governmental bodies to fund it.
The county, meanwhile, isn't being exactly generous with funding. It just instituted across-the-board 3 percent cuts to every county department's operating budget last month.
In addition to its budgetary problems, the county has more immediate priorities, such as trying to implement a hospital district.
A large-scale public transit system may not be a huge need at the moment, but Edge sees it as an investment in the future of one of the nation's fastest-growing areas. He urged the county to act before the need becomes catastrophic.
"Often, public projects wait until it's a catastrophe and the costs go up exponentially when it's an emergency," he said. "Politicians, the public, they want to move when they see a crisis. You know, you don't hear about road maintenance until you have a pothole in front of your house. And then it's a crisis."
But others believe a rail system isn't practical in a place as spread out as the Valley.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's a boondoggle," Townsend said, adding that she would find a bus system much more sensible. "It's just not going to work."