By Dug Begley | November 11, 2014 |
A truck driver’s failure to fully lower the arm of a backhoe he was towing brought westbound Interstate 10 and nearby rail traffic to a standstill Monday and Tuesday in the latest example of a minor incident that had a major effect on Houston-area transportation.
The backhoe, mounted on the truck’s trailer, struck a bridge about 12:30 p.m. Monday, said Jeff DeGraff, spokesman for Union Pacific. The arms on backhoes normally are tucked and angled during transit, but sometimes are not stowed at their lowest point.
The bridge, located between McCarty and Wayside, is owned by the railroad and is the primary Port of Houston rail link.
“Union Pacific knows the identity of the driver involved … ,” DeGraff said. “We will be working with him and his insurance company to recoup the cost of the damage.”
Repairs were expected to be completed by midnight Tuesday.
Though the details of the accident were still being determined, transportation experts said it follows a pattern of larger-than-normal loads and the challenges of permitting and policing them.
“There is not much doubt in my mind they know they need a permit,” said Dan Middleton, a researcher with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in College Station, referring to local haulers of construction equipment. “Some just don’t care. And they get away with it nine times out of 10.”
Soon after the accident, the railroad and Texas Department of Transportation assessed the scene and determined repairs had to be made from the freeway, DeGraff said.
Heavy road, rail traffic
Along with westbound freeway traffic – a heavily traveled truck corridor – the bridge repairs cut off rail shipments to and from the port until the repairs were made. Between 25 and 30 trains use the track on a typical workday, said Barbara Koslov, president of the Bay Area Houston Transportation Partnership, commonly called BayTran.
The bridge is a major freight corridor, so TxDOT officials were willing to allow the freeway closure, spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said.
“This is significant on the traveling public and there is no attempt to minimize the importance of that,” Lewis said. “But our responsibility is overall mobility, and that includes freight.”
The booming Houston-area economy – notably in and around the port – is one reason the freeway and rail system are so vital, but it’s also the source of many of the incidents that lead to freeway closures. As truck traffic has increased, so have incidents involving trucks.
Last year Houston TranStar reported 26 lost loads along area freeways and roads. This year, the agency already has logged 36.
Because of the Veterans Day holiday Tuesday, Lewis said, officials could not provide information on whether bridge strikes are increasing in the Houston area.
Several factors at play
Others familiar with transportation patterns in Houston speculated strikes are likely increasing.
“It does appear that there is a recent trend of more truck bridge hits, particularly within (Loop 610),” said Tony Voigt, program manager for the transportation institute’s Houston office.
Voigt said the strikes might be the combination of more construction activity, high demand leading to less experienced drivers handling large loads, and some scofflaws in the trucking business “not being as diligent as they should when checking clearances and moving these taller loads around the city.”
Police often enforce state regulations, but “they are way, way outnumbered,” Middleton said.
“An officer cannot tell if a load has the proper permit unless they pull the vehicle over,” he said, noting that not every large load will be noticed.
Middleton said the industry must get itself in line, but TxDOT and researchers can help by providing better maps so large loads can avoid problem spots.
Upcoming research by Middleton will help TxDOT determine proper bridge heights in high-traffic areas for heavy machinery, he said.
“Texas is a commerce-friendly state, so the idea was, let’s not inhibit the trucks,” he said.
When the arm struck the bridge, DeGraff said, it smacked into the cover plate that protects the steel girders that hold the weight of the bridge and passing trains. Workers had to replace the plate and reinforce girders.
“As motivated as we are to get this done quickly, we want it done right,” DeGraff said Tuesday morning.
Lewis said TxDOT constantly evaluates routes to suggest improvements. Better signs, for example, could alert drivers so they can avoid low bridges.
Middleton and Voigt added that TxDOT and the transportation institute are working on over-height detection systems. Using sensors that emit a light beam, lights can warn heavy truck drivers if they are approaching a bridge with a clearance lower than their load.
Voigt said the systems are installed along Interstate 45 inside Loop 610 at low bridges, and along the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s light rail line. Two others are planned along I-10 near Mercury and near Wirt, Voigt said.
Longer-term, Koslov said BayTran and other transportation planners are considering alternative routes so large loads can avoid I-10 or other sensitive spots. Rail relief routes are also being considered, she said.
“This is kind of an eye-opener, in that if a track closes down we need a relief route somewhere else,” Koslov said.
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