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June 2007

Moving Goods: The Transportation Factor
Air, Rail and Roads Support Texas’ Leading Trade Position

By Bruce Wright

With its massive transportation network and its central location in the continent, Texas is superbly positioned for its role as the nation’s number-one state for foreign trade. Each day, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of goods and raw materials flow in and out of the state on wings, rails and wheels.

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Trade Gateway by Air

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), five Texas airports — D-FW in the Metroplex, George Bush Intercontinental in Houston, Fort Worth Alliance Airport, San Antonio International and Austin-Bergstrom International — ranked among the nation’s 50 busiest cargo airports in 2005, as measured by “landed weight” — the weight of aircraft landing there that carry only goods rather than passengers.

“The vast majority of [Texas] air cargo is in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — DFW ranks number 1 by far,” said Jeff Warner, a researcher with the Texas Transportation Institute. “Houston Intercontinental is second, followed by Fort Worth Alliance. [Air cargo operations] are fairly consolidated at airports within the major regions of the state. Companies like Fed Ex and UPS[deal in] time-sensitive shipments and use these facilities quite extensively. It puts them in the locations where they need to distribute items.”

D-FW ranked 11th nationally for cargo transport in 2005, with more than 3.3 billion pounds of landed weight.

D-FW also ranks highly in foreign trade even when compared with seaports and land-based transportation hubs. BTSreports that the airport was the nation’s 17th-largest “trade gateway” in 2005, a term applying to seaports, airports and border crossings that provide access for imported or exported goods. In that year, more than $35 billion in goods for import and export moved through the busy airport.

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Trains Keep Rollin’

Texas has the largest freight rail network of any state by far — 10,386 miles of it, according to BTS, or nearly twice as much track as second-ranked California. Yet even this network is only a remnant of the glory days of rail.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) reports that Texas has lost 39 percent of its rail network since 1932, and the University of Texas Center for Transportation Research notes that about 2,400 miles of Texas track have been abandoned since 1980 alone.

What remains, though, is used heavily. “The major railroads are needing to move more and more traffic,” said Curtis Morgan, a program manager with the Texas Transportation Institute. “For the larger railroads, the issue is maintaining infrastructure and adding capacity where they need to. For many years, the railroads were hurting for business. Now, [they serve] a lot of businesses in California and the Los Angeles area, [moving] goods that need to come through the state to get to the East coast.”

And Texas’ rail lines also facilitate the nation’s burgeoning trade with Mexico. More than four-fifths of the nation’s train crossings from Mexico occur in Texas, according to BTS. Those trains carried nearly 303,000 containers filled with imported goods and materials.

Even the trains themselves are becoming bigger. “They’ve made a move in recent years to larger railroad cars, 286,000 pounds in capacity,” Morgan said.

And all this rail activity means jobs. According to BTS, about 16,800 Texas jobs were connected to freight rail in 2005, more than in any other state.

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Kings of the Road

But the undisputed leader of trade transportation in Texas — and the nation as a whole — is commercial trucking, which has become increasingly important. In 2005, for instance, 13.6 million metric tons of goods were imported from Mexico into Texas by surface transport; trucks handled 72 percent of the load, while rail lines carried 27 percent (the remainder moved by other means such as pipelines and mail).

Unsurprisingly, Texas dominates America’s truck-based trade with Mexico. BTSreports that nearly 3.2 million commercial truck crossings from Mexico into Texas occurred in 2005, about 68 percent of the national total.

Together, trains and trucking have made Laredo Texas’ biggest single foreign trade gateway, and the nation’s sixth-largest, with $40.9 billion in exports and $52.8 billion in imports in 2005. El Paso was the state’s second-largest trade gateway based on surface transport, and 14th nationally, with $18.9 billion in exports and $24.1 billion in imports.

Trucking has a major impact on Texas’ 304,000-mile road network, the nation’s largest. “Truck freight is greatly affected by congestion, that’s possibly the biggest issue,” said Warner. “There’s going to be an increase in traffic trying to service major facilities [such as] the ports and inland freight distribution centers that are being developed,” Morgan added.

Congestion is an increasingly pressing issue in many areas of the state. TxDOTreports that the use of Texas roads has risen by 95 percent in the last 25 years, while road capacity rose by just 8 percent. And trucks have a major impact on the road network.

“I would say that [commercial trucking] is going to continue to grow as a percentage of overall traffic throughout the state, and trucks have more of a impact on roadway maintenance,” Morgan said. “Maintenance expenditures will go up.” TxDOTestimates that Texas will need road projects worth $188 billion, as well as other solutions such as commuter rail, to provide an acceptable amount of mobility by 2030.

But commercial trucking, a significant business in Texas, also has a profoundly positive effect on the state economy. In 2004 (most recent figures available), the state ranked second behind California in the size of its trucking transportation industry, with 7,619 business establishments, nearly 110,400 employees and an annual payroll of more than $3.7 billion, according to BTS.

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