Sunday, November 26, 2006

West Texans want a piece of TTC pie

Routes seen as roads to riches

West Texans driven to create trade corridors

Nov. 26, 2006

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2006

PRESIDIO — Driving down U.S. 67 in Big Bend country, you can see why Elephant Rock got its name. A little way down the road, you can make out the Profile of Lincoln on the western horizon if you tilt your head.

Yet when it comes to the lonely, scenic road itself, it takes a pretty vivid imagination to see a valuable conduit between Asian manufacturers and U.S. consumers. But that's exactly what La Entrada al Pacifico is all about.

"There continues to be a demand for new outlets," said James Beauchamp, president of the Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance. "We're a relief valve, so to speak."

Although the massive Trans-Texas Corridor has grabbed headlines and stoked ire along its proposed paths, three ambitious West Texas trade routes are quietly moving forward in piecemeal fashion, each promoted as economic development engines for communities they touch.

Ultimately, though, some commerce experts say it will be difficult for small West Texas cities to siphon much trade from behemoths Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, which already have built-in marketing, transportation and distribution infrastructures and room to grow.

"We know the way this chicken-and-egg works. The chicken is the big industrial area that lays a lot of highway eggs, not necessarily the other way around," said John McCray, an associate professor of management at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has studied inland ports.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has had cities across Texas and elsewhere dreaming of new opportunities for years now. The problem, McCray said, is that shippers and distributors are drawn to the tried and true.

"In the middle of nowhere, it's very, very hard to distribute from out there, as opposed to Dallas-Fort Worth," McCray said. "A third of the stuff will (be consumed) right there ... and the other two-thirds moves on. And Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston are the only two places in Texas where that can happen."

The West Texas routes — dubbed Ports-to-Plains, La Entrada al Pacifico and the Spirit Corridor — all aim to attract north-south trade, and their backers insist there's plenty to go around.

"Anytime you look at transportation projects, it's for the long term," said Michael Reeves, president of the Ports-to-Plains Trade Corridor, which runs from South Texas to Denver. He estimates the project would cost $2.8 billion and take 25 years to improve the existing route to a continuous four-lane divided highway that will need to bypass 15 communities along the way.

Not as much highway work needs to be done along La Entrada in the United States, but there's a great deal to be done across 120 miles of foreboding, canyon-gashed expanse in western Mexico between Presidio and the sleepy Pacific coast port of Topolobampo.

The original La Entrada plan, as first envisioned by then-Gov. George W. Bush and West Texans, was to be a funnel for Asian goods into U.S. markets. But the challenges of a steep, curvy railroad in Mexico, the lack of a corresponding rail line in Texas and the massive Copper Canyon separating Topolobampo from the border region have reined in ambitions.

Plus, the recently approved expansion of the Panama Canal someday would allow monstrous container ships direct access to U.S. ports, such as Houston's. So, La Entrada backers such as Beauchamp have shifted gears, concentrating instead on transporting bulk goods such as agricultural products along the route and focusing on drawing trade from the bustling maquiladoras of Chihuahua City through Presidio instead of El Paso.

"There's been a study done that going from Chihuahua to Dallas via La Entrada saves $309 in trucking costs and three hours driving and three hours waiting at the (inland) port (in El Paso)," Beauchamp said. "That's the benefit.

"Is everyone going to want to go that way? No. If everybody wanted to go that way could we handle it? No," he said, stressing the "relief valve" feature.

La Entrada sparked outrage in Marfa and Alpine, frontier towns that have become trendy getaways. Backers say bypass routes would keep Mexican trucks from rumbling through, but that didn't stop indignation from brewing in the 1990s.

Things have calmed down, partly because of skepticism as to whether La Entrada ever will attract the kind of traffic Midland-Odessa wants.

"Of course it was a hot topic at first. But if you really sit down and think about it, it's not going to happen anytime soon," said Ilana Lipsen, who owns a Mexican import and smoke shop on U.S. 67 in Alpine called Texas Treasures. She doubts the Mexican government ever will get around to building a quality transit corridor across northern Mexico.

The Spirit Corridor runs from El Paso across New Mexico and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles en route to Kansas. Badly in need of widening, it could provide a more direct trade link from El Paso to the Midwest.

Promoters of the West Texas routes say they don't expect to be the next Dallas-Fort Worth. They just want a piece of the pie, however modest.

"If you're in O'Donnell, Texas, and you create five jobs, that's huge," Reeves said. "One town I went to, if they got a grocery store, they'd be thrilled."

For all the political promotion of the West Texas trade routes and the Interstate 35 corridor, McCray contends the most-needed route is getting some of the least attention: the Interstate 69 corridor through East Texas to South Texas.

The problem, he said, is there's scant political pressure to build it.

"It skirts Houston, it misses Corpus Christi, so who's going to advocate for it? Beeville?" McCray said.

Regardless of where concrete is laid, Curtis Spencer of IMS Worldwide, a Houston-based trade advisory firm, said the true winners likely would be the places with transportation and commerce already.

"If you're in between, then there's not as much economic benefit than if you're near one of the termination or distribution points," said Spencer, who thinks the Trans-Texas Corridor projects will materialize along the Interstate 35 and 69 corridors someday.

"The whole Metroplex is going to benefit greatly from the Trans-Texas Corridor," he said. "Will a small town north of Laredo? I'm not sure."

© 2006 Houston Chronicle: