SAN BENITO — For more than 30 years, residents along Railroad Avenue have called on the city to fix the rutted dirt road that’s long been a safety hazard.
Now, they finally have some hope.
But they don’t know when it might come.
For four months, city officials have made little headway in trying to negotiate an agreement allowing the city to maintain the rutted dirt stretch known as Railroad Avenue.
This week, Mayor Ben Gomez told City Manager Manuel De La Rosa to “push harder” to enter into a long-term lease agreement with Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad owns the dirt road, which a group of residents has lived along for decades.
In the 1980s, residents began building homes along the road.
However, because Union Pacific Railroad owns the 344-foot stretch, the city cannot maintain it.
Earlier this year, city commissioners requested De La Rosa to work with the railroad to try to negotiate an agreement allowing the city to maintain the road.
“We’ve got to be in their face on a constant basis,” Gomez told De La Rosa during a Tuesday City Commission meeting. “We need to put pressure on a daily basis. We have to fight for our people.”
During the meeting, Art Garza, the city’s parks director, told city commissioners he has telephoned, sent emails and left voice mail messages at Union Pacific offices, searching for the right official to discuss entering into a lease agreement with the city.
On April 22, he finally made contact with an official at the company’s real estate office, Garza said.
“Union Pacific is not interested in selling the property,” Garza told commissioners. “However, they may consider a long-term lease of 25-feet of right-of-way.”
Since then, he has been unable to make further contact, Garza said.
De La Rosa said big questions need to be answered before the city even considers a lease agreement.
“We don’t know what these conditions could be or what those costs would be,” De La Rosa told commissioners.
“We’re dealing with these folks,” he said.
De La Rosa said Union Pacific’s change of administration and issues coming before the current Legislative session might have led railroad officials to focus on other matters.
“The replies aren’t (coming) a day after or a week after and we remind them again that we’re waiting,” he said.
That’s when Gomez called on De La Rosa to speed up efforts to contact railroad officials.
“Can we push a little bit harder?” Gomez asked De La Rosa. “Can we call more often? Those little calls once a month or emails three times a week is not going to work.”
Gomez told De La Rosa “we have to play hard ball.”
Along the road, residents say conditions continue to worsen.
“Every day it gets a little bit worse,” Jesse Robles said yesterday. “Every rain that comes by makes the holes a little bit deeper. The brush hasn’t been picked up in years and stands five-and-a-half-feet high and takes up half the road.”
Gomez told De La Rosa it was time to “stand up for our people.”
“Get on their nerves,” he said. “We need to do whatever we can to get their attention — a call a day if we have to. San Benito is done playing around. It just takes a couple of minutes to press those buttons — or give me the number and I’ll call them.”
City can’t fix road
Meanwhile, City Commissioner Tony Gonzales asked De La Rosa if the city could maintain the road until some agreement is reached.
Years ago, previous city administrations have assigned crews to help maintain the road.
“I know historically it’s happened in the past,” De La Rosa told Gonzales. “To send public employees with city equipment on private property is not something that is allowed. You’re using public funds on private property. We have citizens out there we need to provide for. So we’re taking this aggressive approach and I agree with the mayor. We’re not going to let down.”
In the audience, Dolores Cuellar, her husband Jesus Robles and other residents walked out after the exchange.
“It’s good to see we have the city on our side and pushing for it,” Robles, Cuellar’s son who serves as his neighbors’ spokesman, said yesterday.
“In the past, the residents lost trust in the city because nothing was getting done,” Robles, who works at H-E-B, said.
How we got here
For more than 30 years, residents living in about 12 homes have called on the city to repair the rutted dirt road.
In 2003, the Robles family paid $12,000 for 1.6 acres off Railroad Avenue, where they built a three-bedroom brick home to live close to other family members in the area.
At the time, Robles said, the city was maintaining the road as a “favor” to residents — as it had done on-and-off during the years.
Then, about eight years ago, the city stopped maintaining the road.
Still, Robles’ family pays the city $476.24 a year in property taxes because the home lies within the city limits.
Now, potholes run about a foot-and-a-half deep.
Heavy rains turn the road into a muddy, rutted trail, cutting the neighbors off from public services.
Residents say the police and fire department even have trouble responding to calls.
Now, some of his neighbors finally have hope in the road’s repair.
“It needs to go through,” Robles said. “The time frame’s the only thing I’m not sure about. I just wish it was sooner than later.”