Feb 13, 2024 - News

Expect more trucks on Austin's already busy roads

Illustration of Benjamin Franklin wearing a trucker hat and driving a semi truck.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Our local interstate could get busier.

Why it matters: I-35, already often with traffic as thick as marshmallow, may see more cross-border trucks inching through town.

  • And with its thin shoulders as it slides through Austin, the interstate can feel as nerve-racking as a game of "Frogger."

Driving the news: Mexico has overtaken China as the leading source of goods in the U.S., per new government data.

  • I-35 ends in Laredo, 235 miles south-southwest of Austin and the chief inland port of entry in the nation.

What they're saying: "All of the big retail customers are ramping up their production in Mexico, and they're trying to get products sourced out of Mexico; your Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe's, Target — all of them are looking very heavily to Mexico to source products in the fast-moving consumer goods space," Jordan Dewart, president of shipping firm 3PL Redwood Mexico, recently told Freight Waves, which covers the global freight market.

  • "Monterrey should be considered part of same I-35 corridor up to Austin," Edward Habe, vice president of Mexico sales for the trucking company Averitt, tells Axios. "A lot of that freight on those trailers is headed to Mexico or coming from Mexico. We're becoming one is how I look at it."

And with geopolitics increasingly unpredictable, Mexico is a preferable trading partner to China, Alfonso de los Ríos, CEO of Nowports, a digital freight forwarding startup, told Axios in a recent interview.

  • "When U.S. companies are looking for new suppliers in Latin America they are looking for resiliency and can't be affected by geopolitics or weather."

By the numbers: Mexico is Texas' top import and export partner, per the Texas governor's office.

  • The U.S. imported nearly $476 billion from Mexico and shipped roughly $323 billion to its southern neighbor.

Between the dotted white lines: Austin remains a bottleneck.

  • The roughly eight-mile stretch between Texas 71/Ben White Boulevard and U.S. 290 North is routinely one of the top congested roadways for trucks in Texas.
  • The annual truck-delay-per mile on the stretch ran to almost 70,000 hours, per the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, leading to costs of nearly $35 million, calculated as the cost of wasted time and fuel associated with congestion.

Texas 130, which passes on Austin's eastern flank, has seen some spillover.

  • Truck traffic on the section of State Highway 130 that runs between Austin and San Antonio has increased by 84% since 2019, per SH 130 Concession Co., the private company that operates and maintains the 41-mile stretch.
  • "Increased trade at the Port of Laredo is certainly one contributing factor, as roughly 30% of our long-distance truck traffic is traveling to or from the port," James Lovett, vice president of public affairs at SH 130 Concession Co., tells Axios.

Meanwhile: The Texas Department of Transportation is embarking on a massive project to expand I-35 as it cuts through Austin, which it says will ease congestion.

  • Construction is scheduled to start by the middle of the year, beginning with a section from Holly Street to Texas 71/Ben White Boulevard.

Yes, but: The expansion project is opposed by local governments and a range of advocacy groups, who argue it will actually worsen traffic and further segregate the city.

The big picture: While the U.S.-Mexico relationship is often viewed through the far more contentious lens of immigration politics, the data clearly show how, despite deteriorating conditions south of the border, the U.S. and Mexico have hundreds of billions of reasons to remain on friendly terms, Axios' Javier David writes.

What's next: "Looking forward into the future, companies like Google, Samsung, LG, GE, Mattel, Lego, all of those brands, almost every product they make is going to be ramped up and coming in from Mexico," Dewart said.

  • With the pace of trade increasing, when it comes to I-35 truck traffic, "you haven't seen anything yet," Habe tells Axios.

The bottom line: Be careful on the roads.

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