Ghost Road

| May 16, 2007

Running the foggy twists and turns of the “NAFTA Superhighway.”

In David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, which is set in the near future, the United States no longer officially exists.

The Organization of North American Nations, an entity controlled mostly by former U.S. big-business interests and including the former states of Canada and Mexico, has optioned out corporate naming rights to elements of human life as fundamental as time (instead of, say, A.D. 2025, the book begins in the “Year of Glad,” as in Glad the trash bag manufacturer). As broadcaster Lou Dobbs might have it, Wallace wasn’t writing a satire. He had the foresight of a prophet.

Dobbs has led numerous recent segments on his CNN show about what he calls moves by the administration of George W. Bush and counterparts in Canada and Mexico to lead the three countries clandestinely into a future “North American Union,” a superstate into which American sovereignty, Dobbs suggests, will be shoehorned and hence obliterated. As evidence, Dobbs often refers to the construction of something called the “NAFTA Superhighway.”

Owner-operator Maalik Ali, of Demopolis, Ala., says he’s heard it mentioned on XM radio and speculates that it’d be “a big hook-up, up north to Canada and across the country through Texas to Mexico.” He says Dobbs might be referring to I-69, which extends today from Port Huron, Mich., all the way to Indianapolis, Ind. Plans are in various stages from southern Indiana to Texas to extend that interstate all the way to Laredo. “That’ll be a gigantic highway,” Ali says, “when they get done with it.”

But he adds that he thinks the term also might work as a reference to I-5, which runs from the United States’ southern border outside San Diego through California, Oregon and Washington.

As he suggests, “NAFTA Superhighway” is more idea than road. But the history of the phrase’s use – from its genesis as a marketing term, its spread throughout American society as a catchall for shipping’s efficient future and finally its nadir as a symbol of the end of the country as we know it – neatly follows the increasing intensity of public/private partnership in highway planning and building in North America over the last two decades.

Back in 1991, with the passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), certain transportation corridors were designated “high-priority corridors” by the federal government. Part of the rationale behind the designation was anticipated congestion along the soon-to-be-complete interstate highway system. After NAFTA went into effect in 1994, allowing for the tariff-free flow of goods between the three North American nations, multistate (and, in many cases, multinational) advocacy groups, sensing opportunity, were founded around many of the corridors, aligning private interests and state governments for both lobbying and research purposes. Here you’ll find the origin of the “NAFTA Superhighway” phrase.

Tiffany Melvin, executive director of North America’s Supercorridor Coalition, or NASCO, which was founded to promote development along the I-35 high-priority corridor and its connections in Canada and Mexico, says the phrase found its way into the public around the time of the organization’s founding in 1994. At that time, she says, the prefix “super” didn’t always necessarily mean “big.”

“There weren’t supersized fries and supersized drinks then,” she says. “By ‘supercorridor coalition’ we meant more than a corridor coalition, more than a highway coalition. We promote economic development, technology innovation and integration, environmental initiatives, educational consortiums, inland ports – we are not just about highways.”

NASCO pushes I-35 for development as a multimodal corridor with rail-highway interconnectivity and, utilizing high technology, new border procedures for trade processing and heightened security. Its overall drive is to position North America to compete in the global marketplace well into the future.

NASCO founders deliberately shied away from using “NAFTA” in the name because of the agreement’s political volatility. But, says Melvin, “a lot of people began referring to I-35 as the ‘NAFTA Superhighway’ because it does in fact carry an enormous amount of NAFTA trade on it, particularly in Texas.” Certain of their members, in addition to unaffiliated parties began using the term in their press materials and associated websites.

By 1999, it had been in circulation for more than five years, and the ISTEA had been reauthorized and partly revamped in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which, among other things, granted states more latitude in determining what they did with their federal highway funds. A reference to a “Partial NAFTA Truckway” appeared that year in the “I-35 Trade Corridor Study,” which projected development and demand on I-35 into the year 2025. The truckway item proposed dedicated haul lanes within the existing I-35 right-of-way to ease projected congestion between Laredo and Dallas-Ft. Worth, which was already thick with commuter traffic.

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