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.

But by 2003, TxDOT had conjured and proposed what it called the “Trans-Texas Corridor” project. Governor Rick Perry has described the TTC as a “vision,” a statewide system of multimodal corridors designed to alleviate congestion over the long term.

Their thinking continues to be Texas-sized. TxDOT Turnpike Authority public affairs officer Gabriela Garcia says environmental studies are well under way for two possible projects, TTC-35 and I-69/TTC. Even the beginning of construction is far in the future, but what TTC-35 might look like is less than hazy in the minds of planners: an alternate highway roughly running parallel to I-35 but in its own right-of-way.

At full build-out, according to the plan, it might have four dedicated lanes for trucks and six for cars, in addition to further utilization of the corridor for pipelines, electricity and rail, including high-speed passenger trains. Where it connects with existing four-lanes, those roads would be expanded to six lanes. Combined with relatively new intermodal facilities in San Antonio and Dallas-Ft. Worth, it could serve as the beginning of what comes to the minds of many truckers when they hear “NAFTA Superhighway”: a high-speed alternate to slower local highways and other interstate-like roads, without the thick commuter traffic.

SAFETEA-LU (passed in 2005), the most current reauthorization of ISTEA, put more onus on states to determine funding sources for major corridor projects. It nearly doubled the number of high-priority-designated corridors and further enabled public/private partnerships to increase funding capacity, with private investment, for new projects nationwide.

The current master development plan for the TTC, says Garcia, is being provided on a $3.5 million contract by Cintra-Zachry, a partnership of Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction. Cintra is the Spanish company that in early 2006 partnered with Australia-based Macquarie Infrastructure Group to become the lessee of the Indiana Toll Road southeast of Chicago, igniting a firestorm of criticism from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, among others. Other groups, including the Indiana Motor Truck Association, backed the move for the funding it would provide the state for new-road and rehabilitation projects elsewhere. One was the proposed I-69 extension from Indianapolis to Evansville, which would be a toll road as well.

ISTEA made it possible for the first time for private entities to own toll facilities along interstate highways, and since then tolling has been utilized nationwide in a much more prominent way. After SAFETEA-LU further relaxed restrictions on federal funding for toll roads (in part by launching a grant program for various pilot projects), the Federal Highway Administration even launched a website dedicated to information about tolling best practices, regulations and opportunities (www.ops.fhwa.dot.gov/tolling_pricing/).

On Halloween last year, the American Trucking Associations came out against the private operation of existing toll facilities. ATA President and CEO Bill Graves told members, “ATA is prepared to lead a national coalition of highway users in opposition to these financing schemes that offer a short-term windfall but a long-term recipe for disaster.” As far as new toll roads are concerned, ATA supports a toll-free highway system.

Like the Indiana Cintra operation, TTC-35 and I-69/TTC are being proposed as tollways that will pay for their own upkeep and at the same time bring in revenue for the cash-strapped TxDOT.

But contrary to what many of the project’s local critics have been saying, says Garcia, if TTC-35 made it through the environmental studies and was approved for construction, it would go out for bidding like any other highway.

Backers of the Texas project stress its local nature – “It is solely a state project,” says NASCO’s Tiffany Melvin. “We’ve supported the creation of the new infrastructure because the congestion problems are so crucial in Texas.” But she likewise stresses that NASCO is still primarily committed in America to increasing efficiency all along the existing I-35 (and I-29 and I-94 along the northern segments of the corridor). Melvin points out that there is no plan to extend the future TTC-35 into Oklahoma.

Longtime Houston area-based owner-operator Danny Cochran, who’s leased to Waggoners Trucking and hauls cars mostly between his hometown and the Spartanburg, S.C., BMW facility, says he’s seen a lot of change in Texas. “It’s not like it used to be, when you could get a place to park traveling that area down by Laredo,” he says.

The I-69/TTC study area runs along Highway 59 right through his neighborhood between Nacogdoches and Livingston, but he says the roughest traffic is along I-35.

“About 45 percent of all Texans live within 50 miles of I-35,” says Garcia. “That’s quite a bit of the population. Anybody who drives I-35 will tell you it’s congested any time of the day.”

Businesses situated along the frontage road make widening the interstate in many places cost-prohibitive for the DOT and financially burdensome for communities along the route. A relief route like TTC-35, backers say, is the answer.

Garcia stresses that approval to even begin the project could be as much as a decade away. “Each of the environmental studies, tier one and tier two, takes two to five years, depending on the study,” she says. “Nothing is done overnight, no decisions are made behind closed doors – we’ve had three or four rounds of public meetings.”

“NAFTA Superhighway” was a buzz-phrase in some congressional races last year and not just in Texas, where Governor Rick Perry won after being beat over the head with the TTC issue in a three-way race (he garnered only 39 percent of the vote). In Kansas perennial 2nd district congressional challenger Nancy Boyda beat incumbent Jim Ryun after invoking the TTC as a precursor to a 10-lane NAFTA superhighway to blaze across Kansas in the near future.

But the future is hard to predict. It’s at least clear that the issues surrounding the TTC cannot be reduced to only local concerns. Whether or not something called the NAFTA Superhighway exists today or even in 30 years, the future will see only more need for efficient shipping lanes for international trade.

Laredo is the United States’ busiest southern border crossing in trade terms. Truck trade at the Laredo border has more than doubled since NAFTA went into effect in 1994. In 2005, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 1,455,607 trucks crossed at Laredo, more than twice the number coming through the next closest southern port of entry at El Paso. The total value of NAFTA trade through Laredo stood at $93.7 billion.

Meanwhile, the port at Los Angeles/ Long Beach is bearing the brunt of the marked increase of Asian exports to the United States and vice versa in recent years thanks to China’s economic boom, and it suffers from extreme congestion.

NASCO and other corridor groups see the development of multimodal corridors extending from Laredo on both sides of the border as connections for United States/Canada- or Asia-bound goods landing at (or departing from) Mexican deep-water ports before making their way north by truck or rail (or east by ship).

Federal Highway Administration Public Affairs Officer Doug Hecox, speaking of forward-looking highway projects like the TTC, says, “We might not be around to see these. They’re ‘next generation’ in the most liberal sense. It’s nice that somebody’s looking at all the possibilities, and we’re very supportive of the process.”

Does this constitute a secret cabal attempting to destroy the American state?

Trucker Richard Skoglund doesn’t think so. Both the TTC project and the specter of the NAFTA Superhighway bring to his mind simply “something that is going to be very expensive to drive on.” The Arizona-based driver for North Carolina’s Davis Trucking says truckers won’t choose to pay for any toll-laden vision.

Skoglund predicts a “big ghost road” in the Year of Glad. “The future of tollways is here already,” he says, referencing the partial beltway outside Denver, though the E-470, completed in 2003 and circling metro Denver’s eastern side, is a product of pre-ISTEA practices. A trip along the entirety of its 56 miles for a tractor-trailer costs a whopping $47. “You’re barely making that much in the truck,” says Skoglund. “Nobody I know takes it.”


Mexican Customs Goes to Kansas City
Last year, KC SmartPort, a Kansas City, Mo.-based nonprofit pooling the interests of trucking companies, rail carriers, government leaders and others dedicated to promoting Kansas City as an “inland port” on the I-35 corridor, received a torrent of abuse from critics.

The concerns came after aspirations to develop a Mexican customs preclearance station for overground shipments emerged under a bright spotlight during the summer’s immigration fever. The move for the Mexican customs facility is an attempt to shift shipping paradigms and streamline border procedures in direct line with NASCO’s I-35 corridor initiatives (KC Smartport is a NASCO member).

SmartPort took its cue partly from the U.S. Customs Service’s Container Security Initiative, which places U.S. customs officers in foreign ports to prescreen cargo headed for the U.S. ports. “We knew this kind of thing was being talked about, so we positioned ourselves with the goal of economic development in Kansas City,” says President Chris Gutierrez. KC Smartport’s founding, in 2001, preceded the Container Security Initiative by months.

Trucks utilizing the would-be facility would have their loads precleared there for shipment to Mexico and the trailers electronically sealed and then tracked by GPS satellites. At the border, they would get expedited service by Mexican customs agents.

It would be the first facility of its kind on U.S. soil, and the precedent it would set is unclear. It’s been tied up in “U.S. diplomatic channels” now for more than a year, as reported by the Kansas City Star’s Rick Alm.

But press officers at U.S. Customs & Border Protection have never heard of anything like it, and only recently has there been any notion whatsoever of reciprocity in Mexico. Alm reported in December that Hector Marquez Solis, Mexico’s NAFTA minister to Washington, “said his nation is now pushing for a U.S. customs operation in Mexico that would similarly hasten the flow of Mexican goods across the border.”


The Trans-Texas Corridor: Myth Vs. Reality
The Trans-Texas Corridor project is a hot-button issue in Texas. From opposition to eminent domain and tollways to border watchdog groups invoking the NAFTA superhighway and nativists crying out about the selling of the country’s roads to foreign powers, misconceptions have merged with and obscured reality to create a vortex of fear and uncertainty around what is, essentially, a transportation project.

TxDOT’s Turnpike Authority has published a “myth vs. reality” section regarding TTC-35 at the project’s website. Some excerpts:

The corridor will be a full 10 miles wide.
“Not true,” says the TxDOT site. “If approved by Federal Highway Administration, a 10-mile-wide study area would become the starting point for a second phase of environmental studies. During the second phase, the additional studies will be conducted within the 10-mile-wide study area to identify 1,200 feet or less for the location of the project.”

Foreigners will own the highway.
“Absolutely not. The TTC is a state-owned project, and any land purchased or transportation improvements built will be done in the name of the state.”

TxDOT will pump groundwater into a pipeline under the corridor to deliver elsewhere.
“TxDOT is not in the business of selling groundwater. Furthermore, it does not have the authority to transport water. The only reason that TxDOT may access groundwater beneath state property is if it is needed for the transportation facility, such as a restroom or customer service center.”

Utility pipelines along the corridor would be exempt from regional conservation laws.
“The transmission of any utilities located in the corridor is not exempt from any laws. Any business interested in transporting water, electricity or other utility must comply with all related state and federal laws.”

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SPP: Super-conspiracy or Good Neighbors?
At a meeting in March 2005 in Waco, Texas, President George W. Bush, then-Mexican President Vicente Fox and then-Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin announced the Security and Prosperity Partnership, a trilateral effort among the nations to enhance common security and collaboration on economic issues. The nebulous self-definition of the SPP as a “dialogue” and resistance to identifying the participants in its many “working groups” has led many people to see it as a nefarious effort to create a sovereign union of North America.

It’s a big part of why CNN’s Lou Dobbs is worked up lately, and there’s even a website, www.stopspp.com (a project of anti-immigration group MinutemanProject.com), dedicated to promoting the idea that the SPP is an extragovernmental conspiracy and by nature illegal.

But NASCO’s Tiffany Melvin sees the SPP in a quite simple way: “The SPP is about being good neighbors and actually enhances sovereignty, security and prosperity,” she says.

The Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration shares an interest in the “prosperity” side of the SPP, says ITA public affairs officer Matt Englehart. “It is about being good neighbors,” he says. “What it is not is a move toward a North American Union. There is no effort to unite the currencies. It will not happen. It’s a discussion between neighbors we share thousands of miles of borders with, and because our security is linked to our prosperity and vice versa, it’s important that we discuss important issues like bird flu and terrorism with our neighbors. Terrorists and diseases do not respect our borders.”

The SPP is a White House-led initiative, says Englehart, with partners in many departments. The kinds of things they’re working on: “Do you want your bank card to work if you go to Mexico City?” he says. “Do you want people to be held responsible if your information gets ripped off?”

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A Rocky Road for Cross-border Trucking
In July last year, talking to a reporter from Traffic World magazine, then-Acting U.S. Secretary of Transportation Maria Cino said that a one-year pilot program for up to 100 Mexican carriers would be launched to determine the feasibility of lifting the moratorium on Mexican-domiciled carriers operating outside the 20-mile commercial zone on the U.S. side of the border. She suggested that the program could be in place by the end of the year, but FMCSA officials later said that discussions were still under way and a launch of the program appeared unlikely anytime soon.

Says FMCSA director of communications Ian Grossman, “We are continuing our conversations with Mexican officials to allow cross-border trucking operations, but no decision has been made about when or if to open the border. If this does occur, we will have a safety plan in place to ensure that Mexico’s truck drivers and their vehicles will be safe to make deliveries in the U.S.”

It was yet another bit of news among many that have kept the trucking industry’s undivided attention since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994. Since then, the agreement has boosted already heavy trade among the three North American nations – measured from 1993 to 2003, in terms of U.S. exports, a 62 percent increase to Canada and a 106 percent increase to Mexico. In its initial form, NAFTA mandated increased freedom of operation for carriers on either side of the border between Mexico and the United States at least similar to the Canada-U.S. cross-border operations, but to this day restrictions on Mexican carriers in the United States remain despite President George W. Bush and former Mexican President Vicente Fox’s support for lifting the moratorium – and U.S. trucks can’t enter Mexico at all.

Since 9/11 the dark atmosphere hovering over immigration and security issues has further complicated the border picture.

In case you’ve forgotten some of the old news, here’s a NAFTA history in miniature:
11/13/1979 – Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan proposes a North American agreement aimed at increasing freedom of personal movement and trade.

7/1/1980 – President Jimmy Carter signs the Motor Carrier Reform Act into law, deregulating the trucking industry.

9/20/1982 – Attempting to inspire freer operation for U.S. carriers in Canada and Mexico, Reagan signs the Bus Regulatory Reform Act of 1982, which effectively put a moratorium on all international carriers operating in the U.S., with a caveat that immediately lifted the moratorium on Canadian carriers in response to the Brock-Gotlieb Understanding, a Canadian ruling granting cross-border market access to U.S. carriers.

10/30/1984 – Congress grants the executive branch further power to enter into free trade agreements on a bilateral basis.

1/1/1989 – Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, signed by Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, takes effect.

6/10/1990 – President George H.W. Bush and Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari back the notion of a U.S.-Mexico free trade agreement.

8/21/1990 – Salinas proposes a bilateral free-trade agreement.

6/12/1991 – Beginning of trade negotiations among the United States, Canada and Mexico.

10/7/1992 – Official signing of NAFTA by U.S. officials.

12/17/1992 – Official signing by President George H.W. Bush, President Salinas and Prime Minister Mulroney.

1/1/1994 – NAFTA takes effect, calling for lifting of the moratorium on Mexican and U.S. carriers operating in cross-border operations beyond commercial zones by Dec. 18, 1995.

12/29/1995 – President Bill Clinton signs the ICC Termination Act of 1995 into law, exempting U.S.-owned carriers domiciled in Mexico from the Mexican-border moratorium but further extending the general moratorium in response to opposition to its lifting.

7/4/2000 – Vicente Fox, having been elected president of Mexico two days earlier, proposes a 20-to-30-year timeline for the institution of a common North American market, marked by coordination of customs, monetary, labor and external tariff policies.

7/3/2001 – American Trucking Associations announces support of U.S. president George W. Bush’s initiative toward lifting the moratorium on Mexican-domiciled carriers operating in the U.S.


The Other Superhighways
With two surface transportation act reauthorizations since ISTEA, more corridors have been anointed with high-priority status and have attracted their own advocacy teams. The CANAMEX Corridor team is one such group, focused on the route from the Nogales, Ariz., border crossing to I-15 across the Canadian border in Montana. The Houston-based Alliance for I-69 Texas advocates for future I-69 from Laredo to Shreveport and joins similar groups in other states focused on future segments of I-69. The Ports-to-Plains Trade Corridor Coalition is another.

The Ports-to-Plains route was first included as a high-priority corridor in the 1998 TEA-21 bill, marked for development as an alternative to the high-traffic I-35 for freight heading more generally westerly. Federal Highway Administration public affairs officer Doug Hecox speculates that the phrase “NAFTA Superhighway” might be referring to this one.

The Ports-to-Plains Corridor proceeds northwest from I-35 outside Laredo through Texas along U.S. 83, 277 and 87 and through Oklahoma and New Mexico along various routes to Denver, Colo. Coalition president Michael Reeves identifies the group’s goal as transforming what is in many areas a two-lane highway to a four- or six-lane divided highway with relief routes around cities for trucks. The biggest project under way at the moment is widening along U.S. 64/87 between Raton and Clayton, N.M. “And U.S. 87 in Texas as well,” says Reeves.

A high-speed route along the corridor would cut 100 miles or so from the trip from Laredo to Denver and would be a more peaceful ride for truckers, says Reeves, through mostly rural lands.

He also notes a study under way at TxDOT aimed at the possibility of developing Ports-to-Plains as part of the Trans-Texas Corridor project in the distant future. Significantly, all involved are exploring options that do not include tolls. “We want to incorporate rail and utilities,” says Reeves, “but we’re not to the level of congestion you see on I-35, so a toll wouldn’t make sense.”

Added to the possible TTC-35 and I-69/TTC and I-35 itself, the Ports-to-Plains Corridor, if fully restructured, would be a fourth major route shooting northward from the Laredo area.


Streets of Laredo
At 10 a.m., truck traffic is creeping along the World Trade Bridge as northbound freight from Mexico awaits inspection by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at the Laredo port of entry. Wait times to enter the United States could be as little as 30 minutes or as much as several hours depending on whether a particular truck is part of the pre-cleared express program or delayed for stricter inspection by CBP agents noticing something that looks suspicious.

“The longest wait time we allow is about an hour on the bridge,” says Rick Pauza, CBP spokesperson. “Once trucks get into the processing center, the time to clear varies according to the level of inspection.”

Regardless, by midnight more than 5,000 tractor-trailers will have crossed the United States-Mexico border using the World Trade Bridge and the nearby Columbia Solidarity Bridge.

Laredo is one end of the bustling I-35 corridor. Since the NAFTA boom of the mid-1990s, the gateway city’s ever-expanding trucking business has put strains on the area’s infrastructure that are felt up and down I-35.

Once better known for their Old West heritage romanticized by movies, books and folk songs, today’s streets of Laredo are a far cry from cowboy yesteryear. In addition to being one of the fastest growing cities in the country, Laredo boasts this country’s second-largest international land port and the sixth busiest port overall. Each year, approximately 1.5 million trucks enter the city’s commercial zone. In 2005, the Laredo port of entry accounted for more than twice the amount of United States-Mexico trade dollars ($93.7 billion) than El Paso, its nearest competitor, and almost twice as much trade as the ports of Otay Mesa, Calif., Nogales, Ariz., and Hidalgo, Texas, combined.

Despite a cumbersome border-crossing process that involves hundreds of brokers, freight-forwarding businesses and drayage operations (freight shuttling across the border primarily using Mexican carriers), Laredo is continually working to improve efficiency. In 2000, the World Trade Bridge opened to handle a majority of commercial traffic that once was spread out over four Rio Grande crossings.

The federal government has also implemented programs like the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE), which uses electronic manifests, and the Free and Secure Trade (FAST) program, which is a pre-clearance system for participating fleets, to speed up border crossings. Both programs have resulted in more goods moving across the borders in Mexico and Canada.

While both countries are benefiting from NAFTA, Mexico continues to narrow the gap with Canada as the United States’ largest trading partner. If Mexico surpasses Canada in trade within the next decade, as some experts predict, the streets of Laredo will get a great deal busier. It may be here where any argument for some kind of “superhighway” really has the most credibility.
–Randy Grider

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