(Orange, Texas)

August 11, 2008

County commissioners concerned over closing of Sabine swing bridge

Erik Onstott

The Orange County Commissioners Court voted on Monday to send a letter to the U.S. Coast Guard expressing its opposition to permanently closing the railroad swing bridge over the Sabine River in the Echo area.

“It needs maintenance and repair work, but the railroad wants to close it,” County Judge Carl Thibodeaux said. “We’re afraid it would impede boat traffic and the ability to clean the river.”

Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the bridge, applied to the U.S. Coast Guard to deactivate the bridge’s swinging capability. According to the public notice issued by the Coast Guard, on July 14, no requests to open the bridge have been made since Hurricane Rita struck the area in September 2005. However, the Sabine River Authority of Texas has several concerns about permanently closing the bridge. SRA director of engineering services William R. Hughes outlined these concerns in a letter to the New Orleans office of the Coast Guard on August 8.

Hughes told the Coast Guard that river navigation would be “severely limited” to boats which may pass under the bridge which were no higher than eight feet over the normal water line. Also, Hughes said, the SRA used a de-snagging barge to clear the river of debris after Hurricane Rita.

“This vessel barely cleared under the bridge (during low water levels) to sccess areas that were clogged with downed trees and needed debris cleaned from the river,” Hughes said in the letter.

Hughes also told the Coast Guard dredging operations upstream of the bridge — requiring large equipment on barges — may be necessary in the future to maintain river flow and that two local industries, Temple-Inland and the Cottonwood power plant, may find it necessary to deliver large equipment by barge in future expansion plans.

The authority is also concerned about the two other swing bridges upstream of the UP bridge possibly being closed permanently in the future.

“We are concerned that de-activating the Union Pacific swing bridge may cause the other bridge owners to request their bridges be deactivated too which will limit navigation even more,” Hughes said in the letter.

“The issue needs to be thoroughly reviewed,” Sabine River Authority executive director Jerry Clark said.

Raquel Espinoza, director of corporate relations and media for Union Pacific’s Southern region, cited the length of time the company had gone without a request to open the bridge.

“We haven’t had a request to open the bridge for larger boats since Hurricane Katrina,” Espinoza said. “Because of the way the bridge is set up, it has joints that have to be maintained. We have to operate our trains slower because of the joints.”

Espinoza said the speed limit is 60 mph, but that the company runs the train across the bridge at 40 mph.

Citizens wishing to contact the Coast Guard regarding the matter may do so by writing to Commander, Eighth Coast Guard District, The Hale Boggs Federal Building, 500 Poydras Street, Room 1313, New Orleans, LA 70130. The Coast Guard is accepting public comments through August 14.

Reach this reporter at 409-883-3571, Ext. 2616 or