Texas Highways, Heavy Trucks, and the Panama Canal

Texas may follow in the footsteps of Maine and Vermont and allow heavier trucks on some major highways — partly because of an expansion of the Panama Canal.

State transportation officials have been talking with their federal counterparts about increasing the weight limit for trucks in some parts of the state.

Right now, the weight limit for trucks on federal highways is 80,000 pounds but the Texas Department of Transportation routinely offers waivers to trucks that apply for them and pay a fee.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins revealed at last month’s Transportation & Infrastructure conference in Irving that a pilot program may be launched for trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds to ease the transport of goods between the Houston Port and the Inland Port in Dallas.

“Congress wants to study that, so we’ve said study it here, study it on I-45, study it between Houston and the Inland Port,” Jenkins said.

TxDOT spokeswoman Kelli Reyna said last week that nothing has been made official regarding a program to allow heavier trucks on any interstate highways in Texas.

“We did have an informal discussion with U.S. DOT about this,” Reyna said. “We are looking at this as a potential test project of sorts.”

Motivating these efforts is the Panama Canal expansion that’s expected to be completed by 2015.

Some argue that the expansion will lead to more large ships docking at Texas ports. Heavier trucks come into play because larger ships can carry shipping containers weighing up to 97,000 pounds. Shipping companies would prefer to transfer those containers directly to trucks without repacking the goods inside.

“The Panama Canal opens up [and] somebody is going to be a major winner,” Jenkins said. “We’re already behind, unfortunately.” He noted that South Carolina has already started allowing trucks to transport international shipping containers weighing up to 100,000 pounds.

Even with relaxed weight limits on some highways, the Panama Canal expansion may not lead to much of a boost in Texas imports. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is leading a working group created by TxDOT to study the impact of the Panama Canal expansion.

“The whole concept is based on a premise that the Panama Canal is going to greatly increase container traffic to Houston,” Emmett said. “There’s no indication that that’s the case.”

The testimony the working group has heard so far suggests that shippers that currently use West Coast ports aren’t likely to reroute to Texas following the Panama Canal expansion, Emmett said. A report from the group is due later this year.

Truck weights on interstate highways have been a contentious issue on Capitol Hill for decades. Critics argue that heavier trucks are more dangerous and rip up roads and bridges faster. Supporters counter that allowing heavier trucks means fewer trucks on the road burning less emissions. They also insist that heavier trucks can be just as safe on the road. A major transportation funding bill approved by Congress earlier this year ordered a study of the issue.

Maine and Vermont allow heavier trucks on federal highways through a pilot program that Congress recently extended by 20 years. Texas would need similar dispensation, Reyna said.