Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"There are better alternatives than taking this enormous amount of private property and giving it to the state."

Texans ponder where superhighway might take them

March 4, 2008

By Peter Canellos
The Boston Globe
Copyright 2008

REFUGIO, Texas - With an abandoned Wild West-vintage town of storefronts slumbering just a block from old US 77, tiny Refugio is a place where myth and reality coexist in a ghostly silence.

And now this South Texas outpost is swept up in one of the more intriguing tests of myth vs. reality in today's political life: the battle over the so-called NAFTA Superhighway.

Local residents came together last week for one in a series of public hearings on the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive public works project that in this area would take the form of a superhighway from the Mexican border to the Arkansas border, with special trucking lanes and rail lines, along with communication and utility cables.

Texas officials say the superhighway is necessary to relieve chronic road congestion. Local opponents say it will cut through their ranches and destroy the area's ecology. And politicians like US Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, and national commentators like CNN's Lou Dobbs have condemned it as a betrayal of American interests - the very road by which American jobs will move out of the country.

"This is a major conduit for getting cheap imported goods into the heartland," insisted Hagan Parmley, a local property owner who is also part of Corridor Watch, an opposition group of residents who gathered in the Refugio community center late last month.

Parmley said Texas business interests support the highway because it would allow Asian-manufactured products to be shipped to deep-water ports in Mexico and then quickly brought into the United States. With reduced transportation costs, it would be even easier for businesses to move American manufacturing jobs to Asia or Mexico.

Parmley's newsletter, which he distributed to the 80 or so residents at the Refugio hearing, expressed excitement that Dobbs, whose television show is devoted to attacking global trade deals and illegal immigration, has taken up the cause of defeating the Trans-Texas Corridor.

But given all the portentious state-of-the-world rhetoric that has surrounded the project, the big surprise at the Refugio hearing was how comfortingly normal the objections seemed.

"I think it's overkill," said Wilson Toudouze, a San Antonio rancher whose mother lives in Refugio. "I think there's probably better alternatives than taking this enormous amount of private property and giving it to the state."

"This wasn't what we were sold in the original I-69 - all those pipelines and train lines," added Melvin Santiago, who came down from the Houston area to express his opposition. "People are a little worried."

Indeed, the state of Texas has had trouble settling on a precise route. In the northeastern part of the state, officials had to bypass Houston's sprawl. Down by the Rio Grande they had to avoid several giant ranches that have been preserved as heritage areas.

The people who gathered in Refugio were, by their own description, the inheritors of the Texas of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" - large men and women of late middle age, almost all wearing boots, some with cowboy hats, and many with waistlines proudly bulging out of their tight jeans.

One stood up and proclaimed that his family has been on the land longer than there's been a Texas, and that he figures he can take better care of it than the government can.

Preserving property rights was a far bigger concern than the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, which some concede has benefited Texas. Others mentioned the trade deal not as an evil in its own right but as evidence of the selfish motives of the business interests backing the highway.

One group was not heard from. Refugio County is almost half Hispanic, and recent immigrants make up the bulk of the workers in town. For them, the highway represents a different kind of threat - bypassing US 77, whose truckers give the town its only economic lift by stopping for food and fuel.

But the translator brought in to assist Spanish-speaking residents wasn't needed. Only the property owners had their say.

"Right now we get $70,000 per month in sales tax revenue that is generated by traffic through the town," explained Karen Watts, a selectwoman. "If we're bypassed, that number will drop tremendously. We're a community of people who are aging and we're a poor community. We have some large ranches but they don't help most people."

NAFTA may get the goat of national commentators, but to the people of Refugio, the superhighway battle is more about land and money - just like in the old days.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

© 2008 Globe Newspaper Company: www.boston.com

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