Monday, October 08, 2007

"Life is no picnic lately at TxDOT"

In search of the NAFTA highway to hell

Road plans in Texas have conspiracy theorists in an uproar

October 8, 2007

Macleans (Canada)
Copyright 2007

I am driving along a mostly empty road in rural Fayette County, Texas, about an hour east of Austin, looking for the NAFTA superhighway -- the one that Stephen Harper, George W. Bush and Felipe Calderón mocked as a conspiracy theory when they were asked about it at their trilateral meeting in Montebello, Que., in August. Critics, who say that behind the leaders' denials lurks a larger, nefarious plan to unite North America, fear that such a roadway will eventually be a four-football-stadium-wide artery connecting Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, with special fast lanes and minimal border checks. It will bring, they say, drugs, illegal immigrants, cheap goods from China, and who knows what else from Mexican ports up into the heart of North America. Maps on critics' websites portray the colossus as running somewhere around here in central Texas, east of Interstate 35, among the cattle pastures, the occasional pickup truck, and the signs that say "Drive Friendly."

Most Canadians first heard talk of a NAFTA superhighway shortly before the summit, at which the leaders discussed their ongoing co-operation under the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). Members of the John Birch Society -- a fringe conservative group opposed to Communists, the UN, and the "New World Order" -- held a press conference in Ottawa with the leftist Canadian Action Party to condemn the summit and the SPP as a plot to foist "transnational socialism" on the U.S. CNN's Lou Dobbs put some of their remarks on the air, and attacked the "proposed NAFTA superhighway," along with the SPP and a plan to allow Mexican truckers to operate in the U.S. (a provision of NAFTA which has never been put into effect) as being "as straightforward an attack on national sovereignty as there could be outside of war."

But the issue had already been percolating. A month earlier, a Republican congressman from California and long-shot presidential candidate, Duncan Hunter, who pioneered the idea of building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, introduced an amendment to a highway bill in the House of Representatives. It would cut off funding for a tri-national SPP transportation working group reporting to the three leaders. "We have right now in Texas a project that is underway, a massive project to build a 12-lane highway heading north." It was, he claimed, "part of an overall plan to develop a corridor between Mexico and Canada transiting the United States." Congress was being kept in the dark, he complained. Hunter's amendment passed the House, 362 to 63.

As the congressman noted, there is, in fact, a superhighway of sorts being planned by Texas that would run from the Mexican border. But this proposed roadway that is feeding the nightmares of conspiracy theorists would end at the state's northern border with Oklahoma. Texan proponents of the road say its sole purpose is to solve their state's own traffic congestion problems. And even that project may never happen, thanks in no small part to Linda Stall, a local activist I meet up with at a Best Western hotel in La Grange, the quaint seat of Fayette County, which, despite its exquisite limestone courthouse, is perhaps best known for having been home to the brothel immortalized in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

Stall arrives looking very Texan in faux pearls, heels and a well-worn pickup truck, though she later admits to being a transplant from southern California. It's a fact she doesn't advertise much, but one that she credits for imbuing her with a political culture of ballot initiatives, recall votes, and generally hands-on, in-your-face politics. As she begins to chauffeur me around, she expresses her dismay that the state is planning to pave over farms that have been in some families ever since they were obtained in land grants from the Spanish crown before Texas was even a state. Stall is not a farmer; she is an escrow officer for a real estate firm. But the thought makes her angry. "If you take away their land, you take away their livelihood," she says several times. Stall wants to make it clear that she is not a conspiracy theorist. But she has enough reasons to oppose the project right here in Texas without worrying about the New World Order.

The drama that would transform Stall's life and eventually explode into a nationwide controversy that found its way to Montebello began in 2002, when Texas's governor, Rick Perry, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who had served as lieutenant-governor under George W. Bush and shared his Mexico-friendly stance, rolled out a breathtaking transportation plan known as the Trans-Texas Corridor. Perry, a Republican, proposed the construction of a futuristic highway from Mexico up to Oklahoma, beginning with three lanes in each direction and expanding up to six, with additional special lanes reserved for 18-wheeler trucks. Alongside the highway would run freight trains, commuter rail, high-speed rail, and rows of utilities from power transmission lines to gas pipelines, water pipelines, fibre optic cables, and whatever else might be useful over the next 50 years -- which is how long it would take to complete. The price tag? More than US$180 billion.

In 2004, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) put out a map that spooked landowners. It showed a "scoping area" for the road, a wide yellow swath cutting through the heart of Texas, 160 km wide at some points, that even enveloped the presidential ranch near Crawford. The highway would be built somewhere in that coloured area -- but no one would say exactly where. Stall was flabbergasted. "I said, you've got to be kidding me! What do we need with this in rural Texas? We started talking to people and they didn't imagine it could be true. That was actually one of our first hurdles: people said, 'That'll never happen. That's crazy.' "

She started going around to communities, telling residents about the planned corridor. People worried that their small towns could be cut off from their neighbours, that the road would have few interchanges, leaving farmers and rural school buses driving long distances to get to homes on the other side of the highway. They worried about hazardous materials being transported past towns with all-volunteer fire departments. And, Stall told them, the picture only got worse.

It turned out that in order to raise the money needed, the road would be tolled. Worse still, Perry wanted to turn the financing over to a private company that would collect the tolls and make profits. Worse yet, the company chosen to draft the master plan for the first part of the project was foreign, Spain's Cintra (which runs Highway 407 in Ontario), in a consortium with Texan minority partner Zachry Construction. To Stall and the legions of people who eventually joined her opposition movement, it appeared that Texans would be losing their land so a private foreign company could build a big road to Mexico and charge them for the privilege of using it.

It didn't help matters when it emerged that a consultant for Cintra was hired as Perry's legislative director just a few months before the firm was given the contract -- and shortly thereafter was working again for Cintra. Or when the state went to court to keep secret some of its dealings with the company. Or when the state auditor accused TxDOT of downplaying the project's potential costs. Or the fact that this snowballing political drama was playing out against a backdrop of pitched national arguments over what to do with an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, most from Mexico, and public outrage over a proposed and ultimately failed deal that would have allowed several U.S. ports to be sold to a company in Dubai.

Texas had already privatized prisons, so a privately administered road didn't seem radical to some officials. But to people like Arnold Romberg, a La Grange city councilman, and his wife, Suzy, radical seemed an understatement. "What's next? Is it going to be the Southwest Airlines Capitol Dome?" asks Suzy Romberg in the La Grange restaurant where we meet. "If the government is going to sell its responsibilities to private entities, does that mean we won't pay any more taxes?" She's worried about sovereignty, borders, and being inundated by "poor and uneducated" Mexican migrants who "come here and don't want to contribute." Though nothing about the road would impact immigration policy, there is a concern that "if you build it, they will come." Her husband, who sports a tie emblazoned with maps of Texas, is afraid that truckers won't want to pay the tolls, and the state will be left to bail out the company. But mostly he's furious that the project was handled "without consultation or consideration of the people."

The state also angered regional tolling authorities who wanted a chance to run the project, and cities that wanted to decide how highways would be routed in their regions. Anti-toll groups proliferated. Environmentalists joined in. Auditoriums overflowed. Both the state Democratic and Republican parties came out against the project in their 2006 platforms. So did more than 30 counties and the influential Texas Farm Bureau. The issue exploded during the 2006 gubernatorial race, in which Perry's 58 per cent vote from the previous election was reduced to 39 per cent after a six-way race in which every other candidate stood against his plan.

Texas Monthly magazine recently declared Perry's close friend and corridor evangelist, Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson, as "the most hated person in Texas," noting that he faces vitriol wherever he goes, has had two heart attacks since starting with the agency in 2001, and has been told that a third could be fatal. And life is no picnic lately at TxDOT, which occupies an impressive art deco building across the street from the state capitol in Austin. "A foreign company is not going to come here and take your land, and roll it up and take it home," sighs Gaby Garcia, the petite spokeswoman for the department, who has faced her share of hostile community meetings and now has taken up heavy daily doses of hot-room yoga. Her boss, Randall Dillard, says only half in jest that his own uncle wouldn't speak to him after he came to work at the department, because decades ago a highway was built through some of his land. "And he got fair market value for it," he notes.

The department's interim executive director, an imposing, mustachioed civil engineer named Steve Simmons, says he understands the resistance in a place where nothing is more sacred than private property. If the state puts a corridor "through a family farm that came down from the Spanish land grant that has 15 dogs buried by the family tree, people will get upset," Simmons says. But he didn't expect it so soon -- at least not until the specific location of the highway would be made public. But the huge "scoping area" on the early map had landowners up in arms, even though the government was planning to buy a right of way only 370 m wide.

To hear the officials tell it, the plan is perfectly logical. Texas is a little like Canada: a sprawling land mass where the population is concentrated in a long ribbon. In Canada, most people live along the U.S. border. In Texas, almost half of the population lives within 80 km of Interstate 35, from Gainesville near the Oklahoma border down through Dallas-Fort Worth, and then further down through Austin and San Antonio to the Mexican border at Laredo, the largest freight crossing on the border. The population of Texas, meanwhile, is growing by 1,000 a day, with the current population of 23 million people slated to double by 2040. According to TxDOT, it would be cheaper to build an entirely new route than to expand the current highway outward, which would require buying out many established businesses.

Simmons maintains that the public-private partnership is necessary because the money the state receives from state and federal gas taxes barely covers upkeep of existing highways -- and Texas has more miles of interstate than any other state. It has already borrowed heavily for infrastructure improvement. "The project started out as the state's long-run plan to address the long-term needs of population growth and congestion," he says. "We don't have enough highways and we don't have enough money to build enough roads in this state. This is a fact that every state will have to face. We are the first one facing up to it."

The state has now narrowed the "scoping area" to a 16-km-wide study area. Garcia says an environmental study should be completed by the end of this year, and passed on to the Federal Highway Administration for approval. If it gets the green light, TxDOT will start planning the specific route. The earliest any construction could begin is 2010.

But the Texas legislature might keep that from happening. It meets for only 140 days every two years (Texans joke it should be two days every 140 years). During the session that ended last spring, anger over the highway project boiled over. Stall and her husband, David, more or less camped out at the capitol, working the legislators, who eventually passed a two-year moratorium on new privately financed toll roads. Meanwhile, the legislation authorizing the project expires in 2009. Sherri Greenberg, a fellow in state and local government at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs, who spent 10 years in the Texas House of Representatives, says it's unlikely lawmakers would re-authorize the project in its current form. "There were concerns that we were giving away the farm. That we weren't getting enough money up front, and that it looked like a free hand for the private company to go about increasing tolls," she says. "I don't know that they will re-authorize it again with a private partner." But Mike Krusee, chairman of the House transportation committee, says he will keep pushing for the project. "The road needs to be built."

So far, the plan has the highway ending at the Oklahoma border, and Oklahoma has no plans to build anything similar on its side. So where is the NAFTA superhighway? In the eye of the beholder. To Krusee, it's a phrase invented by groups who oppose trade agreements and greater continental integration, and whose use was encouraged by opponents of the Texas project as a tactical ploy to fuel greater public hysteria. "People who were against the road in general collected allies wherever they could find them. One source was the immigration debate, and the anti-free-traders like Lou Dobbs," he says.

But it is also true that in the wake of NAFTA there have long been calls to upgrade the north-south infrastructure of the continent. A Dallas-based group, North America's SuperCorridor Coalition, or NASCO, has for 13 years been calling for improvements to transportation infrastructure, which they say is straining under traffic that exploded after NAFTA. But they don't advocate building a monster road. The group's website says the North American superhighway "already exists," in the form of Interstate 35 and its branches -- it just needs to be kept up and improved.

It is also true that talk of "corridors" proliferated in the 1990s after the feds called for states to identify priority trade corridors, and many rushed to designate their highways as such in the hopes of getting more federal money. But Congress didn't actually end up funding a coherent north-south corridor. Because of the congressional earmarking process -- in which lawmakers funnel projects to their own districts -- what was funded was less a north-south line than a "bowl of spaghetti," says Stephen Blank, co-chair of the North American Transportation Competitiveness Research Council, a group of independent specialists in transportation logistics and supply-chain management from the three NAFTA countries. He doubts a plan for a single north-south superhighway could ever survive a rapacious Congress. "Even if we wanted to, we couldn't do it," Blank says. "Can you imagine a 'NAFTA superhighway' that wends its way through every congressional constituency in the country? It would be this double-jointed, creepy-crawly thing."

So if the notion of a "NAFTA superhighway" is taken to mean a mega-multi-modal corridor cutting through the continent, that's not in the works. There is a coalition advocating for a "ports-to-plains" corridor from Mexico through west Texas and ultimately into Canada, but this is nothing more than a big idea on paper. There is also no sign that the bureaucrats in the transportation working group under the Security and Prosperity Partnership are agitating to build such a superhighway, though in fairness to the critics it's unclear what exactly they are doing. A spokesman for the group declined to comment for this story. So far, their efforts seem to be centred on aviation and regulation.

But clearly the interstate highway system, started in the 1950s by Dwight Eisenhower, who wanted to ensure that in the Cold War era U.S. troops could deploy quickly if necessary to defend the nation, is now largely at capacity. Key rail routes are also suffering congestion. And more and more freight from Asia -- not just China, but also India, Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia -- is expected to bypass bottlenecked American ports such as Long Beach, Calif., and arrive not just via Mexico, but also through Prince Rupert, B.C., or even Halifax, where it will add to rail and truck congestion moving into the U.S.

The critics are correct in saying that improving north-south highways and railways will make it cheaper and faster to bring in goods from Asia. But it will also help get exports out and improve the integrated North American supply chain that firms in all three countries rely on. Simmons argues that far from hurting North America, improving infrastructure will help compete against China. But because the states, not Washington, are in charge of building highways, there is no agency in charge of planning such a thing. "The real story is not only that there is no conspiracy -- there is no strategy, there is no discussion, there is no there there," says Blank.

Back in Fayette County, Linda Stall wants to keep it that way. Her next plan is to take her campaign to Oklahoma, and encourage citizens and lawmakers there to oppose tolled corridors and private-public partnerships. Meanwhile, at TxDOT, Simmons shakes his head. "I just don't get it. The goods are flowing and we need the infrastructure to support it. It's just a road."

© 2007 Macleans:

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