Driving home from work on Pasadena Boulevard, Judy Wren had no reason to be especially cautious as she approached the intersection with the Texas 225 frontage road, already bathed in the shadows of twilight. She had the green light.
That didn't matter, because the Freightliner truck bearing down the frontage road toward her had no brakes. Driver Eric Konarik had already sailed through two red lights and hoped his luck would hold until the rig came to a stop.
It didn't. As Wren crossed the intersection, the truck broadsided her Buick Century, spinning it into another vehicle. She was hurled from the car, struck her head on the pavement and died instantly.
The December 1996 wreck was no mere fluke. Konarik claimed he had reported brake problems to his company, Ace Transportation, but repairs had never been made. Nor was his the only Ace truck with faulty brakes -- the company had been cited in the past by the Pasadena Police Department for the same infraction. "Ace had already come to my attention," says Sergeant Loni Robinson, who heads the department's motor carrier safety section. "I had seen a number of reports cross my desk on Ace."
In the 12 months after Wren was killed, Pasadena police officers inspected 15 Ace trucks. Twelve flunked, eight for brake problems. Those numbers are now being used by Wren's family to help leverage a $5 million gross negligence suit against the company.
Even the threat of a hefty judgment apparently did not inspire Ace to clean up its act. On October 9, an Ace truck was taken off the road with five major violations, including several brake-related failings. "We still have problems with Ace," says Robinson. "They haven't changed their tactics at all. It's mind-boggling."
Wren's death and Ace's subsequent rap sheet reinforced what Robinson and the officers who inspect commercial vehicles have long known: Of the thousands of trucks that ply Texas 225 and the surrounding roads every day, many hauling fuel or hazardous chemicals, a disturbing number have serious safety deficiencies.
Some of the problems are mechanical: brakes out of adjustment, cracked frames, major oil leaks, no taillights. Three weeks ago a gasoline tanker was ticketed for having five tires worn to the cord. Officer Gary Delozier recently conducted a routine inspection of a 1998-model truck headed to Nebraska with a load of hazardous materials. He discovered brake pads worn completely away. "It was metal-to-metal underneath there," Delozier says.
Driver negligence causes equally critical problems, especially in securing or checking hazardous loads. Last month Robinson pulled over a step van on a hunch and found a couple of tanks of hexane gas, a highly explosive compound that can cause respiratory and nerve damage, sliding loose in the back. "[The driver] said, 'Well, I'm only taking it a short distance,' " Robinson says.
With no more emotion than if he were discussing spilled milk, the sergeant ticks off incidents of tanks and containers that his team caught oozing toxic substances. "We call them 'leaking packages,' " he says. "We see it all the time -- gasoline, diesel, hydrochloric acid. Your imagination's the limit."
Robinson is not prone to exaggeration. Since Pasadena's commercial vehicle enforcement program started in 1995, almost 70 percent of the trucks inspected by police have been ordered off the road for serious safety violations. La Porte, which has a comparable "DOT unit" (referring to federal Department of Transportation certification), has encountered similar conditions. "I was stunned at the level of infractions that were out there," says La Porte Police Lieutenant Carl Crisp. "It's amazing to me some of the stuff that [the officers find]."
To enhance enforcement, the city of Pasadena approached the Texas Department of Transportation in mid 1996 with a proposal to build a weigh station just off Texas 225 that could also be used for inspections. Now, officers must pull trucks onto the shoulder of the highway or escort them to a less traveled spot. The weigh station would improve efficiency and create a safer place to conduct checks. TxDOT agreed, and this year the project was headed for construction.
But in July, TxDOT canceled the project. At a meeting to discuss the project with Pasadena officials, TxDOT engineers told the assemblage that safety concerns had forced the agency to drop its plan. Robinson was taken aback. "I asked for specifics so we could address those concerns," Robinson says. "They would not give me any specifics."
Robinson is still waiting for an explanation. But he's not likely to get one anytime soon, because he has answers to whatever objections opponents can hurl at him. He and his officers had already discussed the project from every conceivable angle over a two-year period and had worked out the thorny details -- with TxDOT engineers. "I dealt with maybe a dozen people at TxDOT," he says. "All these issues were addressed."
One group has made it plain, however, that no answers would be satisfactory -- the trucking companies, who resent having to either spend money to fix their vehicles or face sanctions from the Pasadena police. "The DOT [unit] is real bad even without the scale," complains Luis Hernandez, owner of Houston-based L. Hernandez Trucking. "We can't even make a dollar. I might as well just park my trucks."
TxDOT district engineer Gary Trietsch says he unilaterally made the decision to abort the project after reviewing the plans. But evidence suggests that the Texas Motor Transport Association (TMTA), an industry trade group, had a lot to do with the weigh station's demise. So did state legislators Robert Talton and Mario Gallegos, who came running when trucking interests called. Even the state Department of Public Safety, which seems to have more allegiance to the trucking industry than fellow law enforcement officers in Pasadena [see "Don't Police Semis?", page 22], helped bring down the proposed station.
All involved insist that safety is their first concern, that they have no interest in seeing dangerous vehicles tooling down the freeway. "We're not opposed to inspection stations, because we want the junk to be off the road," says Les Findeisen, TMTA director of information.
Findeisen and the others might be more convincing if they did not contradict each other on key details; or if Trietsch, TxDOT, the state troopers or anyone else had documented the alleged safety concerns before the edict to cancel was issued. Though every step of the process that led to TxDOT's approval of the project is well chronicled, not a shred of paper explains how Trietsch reached his conclusion to scrap it.
Robinson is convinced that safety had nothing to do with the decision. "That's garbage," he says. "I know what's going on here. Politicians got involved, and from then on it went downhill."
In the tiny, windowless basement office that hardly seems the nerve center of a serious law enforcement effort, Sergeant Loni Robinson clicks his computer mouse and bangs at the keys, eyes darting from keyboard to screen as he searches for an entry. After several moments, he finds the item in question. "Here it is," he exclaims with an exuberance that feels out of place in the drab surroundings.
An ex-Marine and former truck driver with an acute sense of order, Robinson can quote chapter and verse from the book of regulations, cite companies with excellent (and poor) safety records, recall who said what at which meeting. In case he needs a memory jolt, he keeps an extensive computer diary.
Such attention to detail has served Robinson well since the Pasadena DOT unit was formed in 1995. The legislature passed a law that year allowing municipalities to inspect and ticket commercial vehicles, and the city quickly took advantage.
Any motorist who drives Texas 225 understands the need for rigorous law enforcement. A major transportation corridor that feeds the Port of Houston as well as the dozens of chemical plants and refineries in the area, the highway handles more commercial traffic per mile than any in the state. At peak times, trucks running three and four abreast clog the artery, almost 700 an hour, according to a count by the Texas Transportation Institute. Depending on the time of day, as many as 40 percent of the trucks carry dangerous chemicals, some of which are lethal if inhaled. Estimates from various sources put the total number of 18-wheelers passing along 225 at around 7,000 a day.
And if the Port of Houston Authority builds the massive Bayport container terminal as planned, the volume of truck traffic zipping through the Pasadena city limits might double. "I don't know how we're going to [manage] it," says Robinson.
With so many rigs on the road, accidents happen frequently. Robinson quickly recounts a series of incidents that occurred the past few weeks alone. In October, a too-tall rig pulled down a string of power lines on Pauline Street, including one carrying a deadly 25,000 volts. Another truck loaded with 9,100 gallons of aviation fuel tipped over on October 28 near the intersection of 225 and Preston. "It's just fortunate there wasn't a big boom," Robinson says.
Sometimes there is a big boom. At least once a year, a gasoline tanker crashes and burns on area highways. Last August, a tanker blew up on the Southwest Freeway near Montrose, incinerating the driver and torching a vacant apartment building nearby. On May 28, an Oklahoma Tank Lines gas hauler overturned and exploded at the junction of Interstate 10 and 225, killing the driver.
State statistics show that in 1997, 486 people in Texas died in wrecks involving large trucks, the most in the nation. Federal stats show an average of about one hazardous materials spill from trucks every day in Harris County. While the majority happen at plant sites during loading or unloading, many leak in transit: On May 26, for example, a truck released toxic methyl acrylate gas after the driver tried to turn around in a tight space near the bayside community of El Jardin and drove his rig into a ditch. The residents of El Jardin had to be evacuated.
Fortunately, no incidents of catastrophic proportions have occurred since 1976, when a truck carrying deadly anhydrous ammonia plunged from a West Loop overpass and ruptured, killing seven people and injuring more than 150. Whether one interprets the death and accident data as high or low, it's the potential for disaster that counts, Robinson says. "You don't look at what did or didn't happen. You look at what could have happened."
Robinson tries to leave as little to chance as possible. He and his team are trained well beyond the minimum requirements for the job, and their reputation for thoroughness extends throughout the state. They regularly instruct trucking companies on safety and compliance. When Houston police need expertise at fatal truck wrecks involving hazardous cargo, they know whom to call. "We're supposed to be one of the most educated units in Texas," says officer Robert Metcalf, a hazardous materials specialist.
But the demands of the job dwarf the resources available to do it. With only three full-time and six part-time officers (borrowed one day a week from patrol duty) in the DOT Unit, they're stretched membrane-thin. In all of 1997, they inspected only 1,051 trucks. On a good day, they cull at most ten or 12 from the swarm.
Other factors hamper the enforcement effort. In particular, officers lack a designated place to do their work. Chasing down trucks and lugging around portable scales and other equipment adds time to an already lengthy task -- a complete stem-to-stern inspection can take more than an hour under the most optimal conditions.
Efficiency was to be only one benefit of the weigh station. In addition to scales and a staging area, the station would include a small building equipped with telephone, bathroom and other amenities that truckers as well as police could use.
Coupled with the station's primary purpose -- to provide a safe place to do inspections -- those goals made sense to TxDOT district chief Gary Trietsch, at least initially. "Let's try to do it," Trietsch scrawled on the letter requesting the weigh station that Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell wrote in June 1996.
During the next two years, TxDOT staff met repeatedly with Robinson and other Pasadena officials to plan the project. After examining various locations along 225, the state recommended a site between Bearle and South streets. A March 1997 environmental assessment performed by TxDOT found no impediments. The building design passed muster last February. After the cost escalated to more than $350,000 from the initial estimate of $250,000, Pasadena agreed to ante up $100,000 to help cover the difference, and TxDOT signed the funding agreement in April.
When questions were raised about the viability of having trucks go through a traffic light on their way to the station, TxDOT asked the Texas Transportation Institute to review the plan. No problem, a TTI engineer explained in a May memo. "There is sufficient reserve capacity to handle the additional traffic demand," the engineer wrote.
On May 11, Trietsch signed a construction and maintenance agreement with the city, and Pasadena got the go-ahead to publish a construction bid request in the local paper in early July. The project seemed to be in high gear. So when Robinson and others sat down on July 20 with TxDOT managers Quincy Allen and Delvin Dennis, no one on the Pasadena side of the table had any misgivings. "I thought this was the final meeting to clinch it," Robinson recalls. "Then, boom, they dropped the hammer."
As soon as they see the aging dump truck with temporary license plates, Robert Metcalf and Gary Delozier know they've got a live one. "PMS Excavation," Delozier muses aloud at the company ID stenciled on the cab.
It doesn't take long to confirm the initial impression. As Delozier slides on his back under the truck, he calls out the violations: three brakes out of adjustment, a broken spring, a separated shock. Metcalf circles the rig, adding to his list -- no brake lights, a bald tire and two missing lug nuts on one wheel. The brake lights and brakes warrant a red tag, which means the truck can't be driven until it's fixed (though Metcalf gives the truck a courtesy escort to a nearby repair facility).
When he puts on his shades and frown, Metcalf looks like the prototypical small-town Texas police officer -- burly, mean and not to be messed with. In contrast, Delozier, Metcalf's partner in Pasadena's DOT Unit, has an almost boyish look under his careless shock of red hair. Appearances aside, they share the same cordial yet no-nonsense attitude about truck safety that has earned them the nickname "Mr. Goodwrench with a gun."
After a combined 47 years on the streets -- Metcalf as an accident investigator, Delozier as a motorcycle cop -- not much fazes them. The pair bring an enthusiasm to their work that their colleagues find somewhat baffling. "Everybody thinks we're weird," Delozier says. " 'You get excited about catching somebody with an oil leak?' "
The truckers who run substandard equipment are generally respectful while detained, but once back on the highway and grumbling on the CB, their true feelings emerge. "They call us everything from assholes to pricks, you name it," says Metcalf. "There's not much love lost between us."
Though many truckers who complain about Pasadena's enforcement program are simply whining about being caught, they have some legitimate concerns. With several of the cities in the area authorized to write tickets for safety violations as well as the state police, truckers worry about getting multiple tickets for the same infraction or facing unequal enforcement of laws. That rarely, if ever, happens, but at $200 a pop, tickets can quickly eat away profit margins, especially for the hundreds of independent owner-drivers who work the port.
Those drivers are also caught in a regulatory squeeze: The cargo trailers they pull, for example, are often owned by the shipping companies, some of who take little care of their equipment. Yet by law it's the driver who gets nailed for trailer violations. And if drivers refuse to haul an unsafe chassis, they may find themselves without any work.
Pasadena DOT officers understand all this and cut the drivers more than a few breaks on violations, but that's not good enough for some operators -- especially those whose trucks are in disrepair and have received numerous citations. "How can you keep your brakes adjusted all the time?" says trucking company owner and repeat offender Luis Hernandez. "You've got to be under the truck every day."
Hernandez, who claims his trucks are in relatively good condition, says the Pasadena cops need to "slack off a little," especially on brake and oil leak violations. "Am I gonna be paying a mechanic to rebuild my motor because a bad seal is leaking oil?" he says. "I can't afford to be doing that."
Mike Nall, safety director for Dorsett Brothers Concrete Supply, supports Robinson's DOT crew and has worked closely with them. "If there's some trucking companies out there protesting what Pasadena's doing," Nall says, "I'd have to look at their maintenance and safety record."
A group of disgruntled truckers including Hernandez met with Robinson, Mayor Isbell and other Pasadena officials on March 31 to air their grievances. They complained of overzealous enforcement, of being singled out for inspections, of multiple tickets for minor-league violations. They got nowhere, mostly because they had trouble substantiating the charges. "I would dare any company to show me a citation that was issued without cause," Robinson says. "These guys were just complaining because their trucks are pieces of trash."
Oddly, even Hernandez seems to agree. Noting that Isbell owns a fleet of relatively new trucks that have also received tickets, Hernandez says it's no wonder his own have problems. "Compared to his, our trucks are just a piece of junk," he says.
The handful of truckers at the meeting all did business with Southern Crushed Concrete, a Pasadena company that contracts trucks to pick up and deliver materials. Southern Crushed executive Jim Miller was also present, and had organized the gathering.
At one point, the meeting lapsed into a truckers' complaint session with Miller over pay, suggesting that Southern Crushed contract wages were not enough to adequately maintain their rigs. "Southern Crushed Concrete is probably the lowest paying company here in Houston," Hernandez says.
At the end of the meeting, Pasadena police Captain Gary Cunningham stated that the department would continue to enforce the law. Robinson did offer to set up a safety session with Miller and any interested companies or truckers to help them understand how to better comply with the rules in the future. "Did they ever get back to us?" asks Robinson, telegraphing the answer with upraised palms. "No."
Miller and his gang may not have taken advantage of Robinson's offer, but they did have a plan. On April 27 they met with state Senator Mario Gallegos and repeated their harassment charges. And they talked about the weigh station. "We mentioned, how is it gonna be when they put in the scale?" says Luis Hernandez. "It's gonna get worse."
Gallegos evidently swallowed even their most exaggerated assertions. "The stoppages on trucks had soared over the last eight months" by 1,000 percent, he says. (In actuality, they're down slightly from 1997.)
Under the circumstances, Hernandez says, the senator promised his support. "He just told us he was gonna try and do his best to help us."
State Representative Robert Talton peers at a map tacked to the wall of his storefront office in a run-down strip center a few blocks south of Pasadena City Hall. He's trying to show that the proposed weigh station is in his district, but the map shows otherwise. "Looks like they changed it on me," he says. "It was inside the district."
Talton insists his involvement with the issue has been minimal. His first encounter with the project, he says, was at an April 30 public hearing he attended with his wife at Sam Rayburn High School in Pasadena. According to several in attendance, the two stood at opposite ends of the room as Talton's wife fired loaded questions at Loni Robinson that clearly indicated opposition.
After the meeting, an angry Robert Metcalf challenged Talton's assertion that he'd known nothing of the project prior to that evening. The officer reminded Talton of a conversation they'd had about the weigh station seven months earlier at the Highway Grill off 225. Metcalf says the legislator had responded enthusiastically -- he could even arrange for Governor Bush to come down for the ribbon cutting. "He told me he was going to use his clout," Metcalf says. "They'd just make it a big hoopla."
Talton wouldn't explain his change of heart, Metcalf scowls, "He never said a word. He turned around and walked away."
The representative says he knows Metcalf, but can't remember any conversation at the Highway Grill. "I don't remember seeing him, but that's possible," he says.
A couple of days after the public hearing, Talton got a call from his legislative colleague, Mario Gallegos. "He asked me if I'd help him," says Talton. "That's when I wrote a letter to TxDOT."
The letter requested project information. After he reviewed it, Talton says he did a little research, beginning with a field trip to the DPS weigh station on I-10 in Chambers County. When he tried to get into the station area, he found his path blocked by a line of trucks backed up along the shoulder of the road. "What surprised me was, even with 26 or 28 officers, they couldn't check all the trucks," he says, imagining the nightmare of a similar jam in the urban environs of Pasadena.
A phone conversation with DPS Captain David Kemp, who heads the regional license and weight division, proved the kicker for Talton. Kemp told the legislator he had major reservations about the weigh station. "He said it's not safe, and his troopers won't use it," Talton says.
Kemp offered the same sentiments to the Texas Motor Transportation Association, an industry trade group active on legislative matters. An article in TMTA's July newsletter stated, "According to Capt. David Kemp ... the proposed site poses some safety concerns for them, therefore the DPS would not be using it."
Kemp says he first found out about the weigh station from TMTA in May. But Loni Robinson says he talked to Kemp about the project several times before that, including at a March 13 meeting of the Houston Area Transportation Safety Association. "I know for a fact I mentioned it to him," Robinson says.
That TMTA should call Kemp makes sense, and not only because DPS manages weigh stations -- the agency has a historically chummy relationship with industry. "They knew that was the place to go," Robinson says.
TMTA also contacted Talton, asking him to speak on the weigh station at a June 17 regional meeting. Noting that Talton had "expressed concerns over the project," the newsletter article stated that the legislator "indicated that ... he had been asking questions about this plan ever since he heard about it, but was given few answers."
The association has made no bones about its own position. Quoted in the newsletter, TMTA director of information Les Findeisen said, "I feel it is premature for any city to have an inspection station."
On July 8, Talton and Gallegos (who had also conferred with TMTA) sat down with TxDOT district engineer Gary Trietsch and asked him to take a look at the project. "[Talton] just voiced concerns about the thing," Trietsch says." To be honest, I can't remember what his concerns were."
Starting in the spring, Trietsch says, his office had been "getting all kinds of phone calls." No one logged them, but Trietsch remembers they came from "elected officials, the public, this and that."
In the wake of his meeting with the two legislators, Trietsch conducted his own review, which apparently consisted of a look at the plans and a glance through the documents. And he heard from someone in his office (though he can't recall whom) that DPS had relayed safety concerns about the plan. Asked who at DPS had offered their opinions, he again pleaded ignorance. "I don't have any idea," he says.
Even in a vacuum Trietsch says he would have drawn the same conclusion after his review: The project had to be killed. "Everything in my experience told me this thing had a good chance of not working," he says. As for the various studies and assessments done by his staff and the city of Pasadena that indicated otherwise, Trietsch says opinions can differ. "Nothing against those studies," he says. "I've also done enough studies that say everything's right, and it doesn't work."
As for specifics, Trietsch is a bit vague. The exit point for the trucks was a little too far back from the station to monitor the traffic, he thinks. He didn't particularly like the idea of closing a little-used on-ramp, though that wasn't a huge problem. And the parade of heavy trucks might stress the pavement on the frontage road, though "in reality, they probably wouldn't do any damage, but [they] certainly wouldn't help it any."
"Do you realize how ludicrous a statement that is?" Loni Robinson retorts. "The frontage roads were constructed to hold that weight. They have to be."
Trietsch also says he didn't see any need to talk over his decision with Robinson or other Pasadena officials "I really didn't think I needed to discuss it with anybody," he says. "The design was not good, and that's all I can say about it."
Talton, who told a crowd at the TMTA meeting that he couldn't get his questions answered, also never approached Robinson with his concerns, though he says he talked to someone in the police department at some point.
Gallegos says he did call Robinson, but only to share the feedback about over-enforcement from the truckers. "He never called me," the sergeant scoffs. "I called him, asking what his position was. He told me he was in a holding pattern."
In addition, Robinson recollects, the senator mentioned an upcoming meeting with Talton and others, and said he'd be in touch to extend an invitation once the date was set. "Guess what," Robinson says dryly. "He never called back."
Even the underlings Trietsch dispatched to deliver the bad news to Pasadena officials were short on specifics. One of them, deputy district engineer Delvin Dennis, says he outlined in detail the various reasons the project would not move forward, but Robinson and the others at the meeting vehemently disagree. "Dennis just said, 'Well, the location doesn't seem to be a good location,' " says Robinson. "It was like they had marbles in their mouths."
Had Dennis tried to argue the particulars, he would have stalled abruptly -- for such questions as how to deal with oversized vehicles or how to keep truck traffic from backing up onto the highway, Robinson has detailed answers. "I had a contingency plan for everything," he says.
Mike Nall, safety director for Dorsett Brothers, can't understand the criticisms, either. Nall had worked with Pasadena and TxDOT on the project up until its cancellation, and his company had planned to contribute concrete for the weigh station at cost. "There wasn't anything unsafe about it," Nall says.
Now that the project is dead, everyone except for Trietsch who had something bad to say about it is backpedaling furiously from responsibility for its demise. Not only did they not lobby against the weigh station, they say, they were hardly even in the loop. "The weigh station, you're talking to the wrong person," says Gallegos. "You need to talk to Mr. Talton about that."
Discrepancies among various players are big enough to accommodate an oversized load. Asked about how TxDOT arrived at its decision, agency spokeswoman Eloise Lundgren offered several different stories before settling on a final version.
Trietsch says that he examined the plan only after meeting with Gallegos and Talton, but the legislators say the decision to ax the deal had already been made by the time they got together. "Trietsch said the design was wrong," Gallegos says.
Pressed for names, however, Gallegos could only provide those of Southern Crushed Concrete and the band of chronic offenders who came calling after being rebuffed by Pasadena.
Captain Kemp of DPS now says it was staffing concerns at the weigh station, not safety, that made him think twice about using it. Kemp also denies he ever voiced his concerns about the weigh station to TxDOT. But DPS highway patrol Captain Jude Schexnyder says he believes TxDOT talked to Kemp over the telephone about it.
As for TMTA, information director Les Findeisen contends that his organization was not involved in the weigh station project. The calls made to Gallegos, Talton, Kemp and others were simply to clarify TMTA's desire for uniform enforcement. They certainly didn't lobby anyone to help quash it -- even though TMTA pays a lobbyist to do precisely that kind of job. Findeisen won't even admit that TMTA opposed the weigh station. "We had concerns," is as far as he'll go.
In September, TMTA held its annual Safety Management Council meeting in Kerrville. In the opening address, president Bill Webb thanked Talton and Gallegos for aiding the organization's objective -- to eliminate the weigh station. According to a trucking company executive who attended the meeting, Webb then said that if Pasadena or another municipality tried to build the station in the future, TMTA would stop that as well.
Asked about those comments, Findeisen clings to his position. "I wasn't in Kerrville," he says, "so I can't tell you what was said, or in what context it was said."
Gallegos had an idea. "Upon reviewing the information presented to me and recognizing that the safety of the public is at stake," he wrote in a September 9 letter to Pasadena Mayor Isbell, "my recommendation to the Texas Department of Transportation was to proceed with the weigh station project but to locate it closer to Barbour's Cut."
Robert Talton thinks the port itself would make a good host for a weigh station. Trucks could then be inspected before they ever hit the highway, he points out. "It would be worth putting a DPS officer down there or something," Talton says.
Of course, both Talton and Gallegos know that the port commission has no interest in such a scheme, which would slow the pace of commerce and infuriate everybody doing business there. And while Gary Trietsch says "We're probably as interested in doing a weigh station as anybody," the agency has no plan even in the formative stage, nor is such an initiative likely to come from any municipality other than Pasadena.
"If the state put one in, I'd back off," says Jim Moody, a member of the Pasadena Citizens Advisory Council who has been agitating about the issue since TxDOT pulled the plug. "But they're not doing it. They have no intention of doing it."
While the number of trucks on 225 and other area highways and streets is increasing, enforcement has taken a hit. After the law was passed in 1995 that enabled larger Harris County cities to form their own DOT units, five municipalities enrolled in training: Baytown, La Porte, Deer Park, Houston and Pasadena. Three years later, only Pasadena and La Porte remain active.
With others dropping out, Pasadena has no intention of letting the weigh station die. City spokesman Dave Benson says the legal department mulled a lawsuit against TxDOT, but has decided for the time being against it. "It's not real likely we'll pursue that avenue," Benson says, "just because it's pretty darn difficult to sue the state of Texas and win."
More likely is that Pasadena will try and avoid future bureaucratic pitfalls by building a station itself, though the expense would probably limit the facility to bare-bones dimensions. "We can come up with the money to build something," Benson says. "We'll have a place to pull trucks over and look at them. It'll do the job."
"All we want is a concrete pad somewhere," seconds officer Gary Delozier. "We don't want politics."
Politics may yet interfere with Delozier's work, however. TMTA's Findeisen says his group will aim to have DPS exert more control over municipal DOT units. "There needs to be something done at the legislative level for the Department of Public Safety to have some type of oversight, direction and control," he says.
Unless Pasadena's efforts are cut off at the knees, however, the DOT unit is unlikely to give an inch. "The law's still gonna get enforced," Robinson says. "There's plenty out there to keep us busy."
That's bad news for truckers like Luis Hernandez, who says he now avoids Highway 225 entirely if he can help it. "If my company asks me to haul a load towards La Porte on 225, I refuse," Hernandez says. "I will not go there, simply because the DOTs are there."
Hernandez says he simply can't afford to pay multiple fines for such minor shortcomings as brakes out of adjustment. He knows his trucks well enough to know that if he slams on the brakes, they'll stop, even if technically they don't measure up. "If they go with a ruler and measure it, they're gonna say it's out of adjustment," he says. "From my point of view, they're not out of adjustment."
He can't even get relief in the courts, where judges will sometimes give truckers a break and dismiss tickets. Not for brakes in Pasadena, though, at least ever since Judy Wren was killed in 1996. Wren was a longtime senior clerk in the Pasadena municipal court, and since her death, judges have been cracking down on trucks with brake problems. "How long are we gonna pay for this clerk?" Hernandez asks. "Are we all gonna be paying for the rest of our lives?"
"I think there should be a limit."
E-mail Bob Burtman at email@example.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.