In search of the NAFTA highway to hell
Road plans in Texas have conspiracy theorists in an uproar
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE | October 8, 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.