Rough road ahead

If you've got a smooth, north-south stretch of two-lane blacktop in your neighborhood, you might want to enter it in the race to be the official "NAFTA Highway."

You'll join a crowded contest to be the road that will carry billions of dollars worth of goods between Mexico, the United States, and Canada and, in turn, win the biggest chunk of the roughly $122 billion that the federal government has proposed to distribute to municipalities for highway construction over five years.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has raised the road-building hopes of so many politicians statewide that a map of NAFTA highway proposals would resemble a plate of spaghetti--each noodle being loudly touted as the "real" NAFTA Highway.

"NAFTA is the rallying cry," says Dan Bledsoe, an administrative assistant in Denton County, who is part of a group pushing Interstate 35 as the primary caravan route to Mexico.

At the vortex of the frenzy is new Texas Governor George W. Bush, who should get a few points just for graciously enduring the repetitious NAFTA highway pitches while walking a tightrope between the competing proposals.

At 9 a.m. on February 21 in Austin, the new governor hosted a group of Midland and Odessa local officials. The West Texans wanted to pitch their idea of building a highway--virtually from scratch--to handle the increased commercial traffic generated by NAFTA from the Pacific coast city of Topolobampo, Mexico, through Midland and Odessa to hook up with Interstate 20.

"He was very nice to us," says Charles R. Perry, the Midland oil man who led the group.

At three o'clock the same day, another group of local officials, this time from Denton County, paid a visit to the governor to lobby for I-35. The interstate, which extends from the Canadian border through Dallas to Laredo, then on to Monterrey, Mexico, will become a veritable river of trucks rolling through the state under NAFTA, the I-35 proponents argue.

"We were very well received," Bledsoe, the administrative assistant to Denton county judge Jeff Moseley, who led the North Texas group to Austin, says of the visit with Bush.

Meanwhile, in El Paso, U.S. Rep. Ronald Coleman has introduced a federal bill to establish a "Camino Real Corridor," a highway that would link Chihuahua, Mexico, El Paso, and Denver. "While the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement will no doubt affect the entire nation," Coleman was quoted in the congressional record, "perhaps no area will witness greater changes than the Southwestern region along the Mexican border."

Houston municipal leaders and business groups would agree with Coleman--with one important exception: The awesome impact will land on U.S. Highway 59, which connects their city with Laredo. Consequently, they want U.S. 59 improved and expanded into what would be designated Interstate Highway 69 as a North American turnpike from Laredo to Lufkin and on north.

At stake in the propaganda war for the NAFTA-highway name, of course, is a fillup of federal funds. Specifically, a $122 billion total pot of federal highway funds from 12 different pools scheduled to be appropriated by Congress and the U.S. Transportation Department for highway work across the country for five years beginning in 1996. The various Texas city leaders are working on the principal that if they line up enough federal and state politicians behind their proposals, they will have the clout to convince Congress to route a significant part of those dollars their way.

The I-35 group has covered the most ground so far. With press conferences, editorial board meetings, and trips to Washington, they have garnered the support of The Dallas Morning News, Senator Phil Gramm, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, and the passage of a resolution in the Texas House of Representatives. The resolution endorses the designation of I-35 "from Laredo at the Rio Grande north through the 21 counties it traverses to the Red River as part of the NAFTA Superhighway System," a name that, by the way, as yet does not exist in the highway agencies' books.

Given the intrastate rivalries, Bush is trying to avoid gratuitously stepping on toes. "Governor Bush is going to tell the federal government that Texas has a long border with Mexico," says Ray Sullivan, a press spokesman for the governor. Specifically, the governor has now endorsed three of the proposals, Sullivan says: the I-35 group, the Midland-Odessa crew, and those behind U.S. 59.

But correspondence between the Midland-Odessa group and the I-35 coalition hints at how byzantine the competition could get for the NAFTA designation.

On February 15, Midland oilman Perry, who heads a group called the Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance (MOTRAN), dispatched a letter to Denton county judge Moseley trying to defuse any concerns the I-35 group might have about his group collaborating with the Houston officials who are pushing for turning U.S. 59 into a new interstate.

"[MOTRAN] has had no discussions with any community east of Sweetwater," Perry's missive assures the I-35ers. "We have no intention of conferring with or seeking support of any city east of Abilene, and we see no reason to become involved with any corridors, other than I-35."

Perry informed Moseley that he was scheduled to talk to leaders from Lubbock and Amarillo, which lie north of Midland-Odessa, in connection with some proposed highway improvements between the cities under the name "Entrada Al Pacifico" Corridor. He also expected to solicit support from Abilene and other West Texas communities, he told Moseley. The point being that the West Texas groups would offer no threat to I-35's dominion in the east.

But Perry complains that Lubbock and Amarillo have been conspicuously low-profile players in the NAFTA-highway game. The Panhandle cities don't seem to understand the immense benefits of being whistle stops on a NAFTA Highway. "I told them, it's a real nice party and you might want to join," Perry says. "But they've taken the position that they can just sit there and people will come to them."

In his letter to Moseley, Perry even proposed another joint resolution in which MOTRAN would endorse the I-35 proposal and Houston, in return, would announce support for "Entrada Al Pacifico."

But so far, Perry says, the I-35 group has tabled his proposal. In the war for the NAFTA highway name and federal dollars, mutually beneficial back scratching apparently is, as yet, a rare commodity.

Texas Supreme Court to hear GM truck case
The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in the General Motors pick-up-truck case. The high court's ruling means that plaintiff's lawyers Sam Baxter and Timothy Crowley will have an opportunity to defend their proposed class-action settlement with GM,which includes $9.5 million in attorney fees.

As detailed in a February 16 Dallas Observer cover story, "Pickup Games," a Texarkana appeals court in June threw out as inadequate a Marshall state court settlement offered to owners of older model GM trucks, which have fuel tanks that consumer groups allege are prone to explosions in collisions. Under the Marshall deal, GM would give the truck owners a $1,000 coupon good for the purchase of a new GM truck.

The Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments on March 21.