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Hidalgo County preparing for surge in produce trucks

Hidalgo County preparing for surge in produce trucks
MGN Online
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POSTED: Monday, April 15, 2013 - 9:45am

UPDATED: Monday, April 15, 2013 - 9:52am

Each year, just before they reach the United States border, thousands of truck drivers hauling produce from western Mexico to southern Texas stop in the city of Reynosa to lighten their loads.

Mexico allows heavier trucks on its roads than Texas does. To avoid being charged a fine — which averages about $110 — when they reach Texas, drivers routinely drop off a few pallets of bell peppers, avocados, tomatoes or watermelons to be picked up by lighter trucks before crossing one of Hidalgo County’s international bridges, according to Keith Patridge, president of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, which promotes commerce in both McAllen and Reynosa.

The transfer can be costly. “In a 100-degree day, if you’re out jostling produce around, it reduces the quality of the product,” Patridge said.

State Rep. Sergio Muñoz Jr., D-Mission, wants to put an end to those detours. He has filed legislation that would allow trucks to pay an $80 fee in exchange for crossing the border overweight. With the construction of a highway in Mexico that the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts will spark a surge in refrigerated trucks passing through Hidalgo County, he says the region needs to be prepared and that House Bill 474 will help.

“It’s just a huge amount of economic development that’s going to occur with the increased traffic,” he said. “It’s not going to be only for South Texas, but it’s going to be increased commerce for the state.”

Mexican officials are finishing the Mazatlán-Matamoros Corridor, a highway that will provide a direct route between Mexico’s western growing regions and South Texas. The road is expected to accelerate a shift of Mexican produce trucks entering the United States to Hidalgo County from Nogales, Ariz., for quicker access to East Coast markets.

“For the Mexican produce industry, it’s a no-brainer,” said Richard Sanchez, Munoz’s chief of staff. “They’re going to save about six hours’ travel time coming through South Texas.”

Muñoz’s bill would direct money from the $80 fees to pay for road maintenance related to damage from the heavier trucks. The Texas Department of Transportation already oversees three corridors for overweight trucks in other parts of the state; this new one would be the first to apply only to produce trucks. Arizona has a similar system for overweight trucks crossing the border near Nogales.

John McClung, who oversees border issues for the Texas International Produce Association, said vegetable and fruit sellers are willing to pay the fee to avoid unloading cargo before reaching one of the cold storage facilities in and around McAllen, Hidalgo County’s largest city. The produce is typically unloaded at those warehouses and prepared for redistribution around the country. More facilities are being built in the county to prepare for increased produce truck traffic.

“It is just that first few miles in the U.S. that is the concern,” McClung said.

Some lawmakers initially wondered whether an $80 fee was too low. TxDOT officials told a House committee that the fee would cover the costs of road repair.

Muñoz’s bill passed the House on Thursday without debate. Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, has filed a companion bill in the Senate.

Carlos Zambito, the marketing director of the McAllen Produce Terminal Market, where hundreds of trucks transfer produce daily, said the measure would mean fewer trucks passing through the area.

And if truck drivers are able to skip a detour, the measure could also lead to fresher produce at thousands of grocery stores.

“In perishables,” Zambito said, “every hour counts.”

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/04/15/hidalgo-county-for-surge-in-produce-trucks/.

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