The NAFTA Superhighway
When completed, the highway will run from Mexico City to Toronto, slicing through the heartland like a dagger sunk into a heifer at the loins and pulled clean to the throat. It will be four football fields wide, an expansive gully of concrete, noise and exhaust, swelled with cars, trucks, trains and pipelines carrying water, wires and God knows what else. Through towns large and small it will run, plowing under family farms, subdevelopments, acres of wilderness. Equipped with high-tech electronic customs monitors, freight from China, offloaded into nonunionized Mexican ports, will travel north, crossing the border with nary a speed bump, bound for Kansas City, where the cheap goods manufactured in booming Far East factories will embark on the final leg of their journey into the nation's Wal-Marts.
And this NAFTA Superhighway, as it is called, is just the beginning, the first stage of a long, silent coup aimed at supplanting the sovereign United States with a multinational North American Union.
Even as this plot unfolds in slow motion, the mainstream media are silent; politicians are in denial. Yet word is getting out. Like samizdat, info about the highway has circulated in niche media platforms old and new, on right-wing websites like WorldNetDaily, in the pages of low-circulation magazines like the John Birch Society's The New American and increasingly on the letters to the editor page of local newspapers.
"Construction of the NAFTA highway from Laredo, Texas to Canada is now underway," read a letter in the February 13 San Gabriel Valley Tribune. "Spain will own most of the toll roads that connect to the superhighway. Mexico will own and operate the Kansas City Smart Port. And NAFTA tribunal, not the U.S. Supreme Court, will have the final word in trade disputes. Will the last person please take down the flag?" There are many more where that came from. "The superhighway has the potential to cripple the West Coast economy, as well as posing an enormous security breach at our border," read a letter from the January 7 San Francisco Chronicle. "So far, there has been no public participation or debate on this important issue. Public participation and debate must begin now."
In some senses it has. Prompted by angry phone calls and e-mail from their constituents, local legislators are beginning to take action. In February the Montana state legislature voted 95 to 5 for a resolution opposing "the North American Free Trade Agreement Superhighway System" as well as "any effort to implement a trinational political, government entity among the United States, Canada, and Mexico." Similar resolutions have been introduced in eighteen other states as well as the House of Representatives, where H. Con Res. 40 has attracted, as of this writing, twenty-seven co-sponsors. Republican presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire now routinely face hostile questions about the highway at candidate forums. Citing a spokesperson for the Romney campaign, the Concord Monitor reports that "the road comes up at town meetings second only to immigration policy."
Grassroots movement exposes elite conspiracy and forces politicians to respond: It would be a heartening story but for one small detail.
There's no such thing as a proposed NAFTA Superhighway.
Though opposition to the nonexistent highway is the cause célèbre of many a paranoiac, the myth upon which it rests was not fabricated out of whole cloth. Rather, it has been sewn together from scraps of fact.
Take, for instance, North America's SuperCorridor Organization (NASCO), a trinational coalition of businesses and state and local transportation agencies that, in its own words, focuses "on maximizing the efficiency of our existing transportation infrastructure to support international trade." Headquartered in borrowed office space in a Dallas law firm, the organization, which has a full-time staff of three, advocates for increased public expenditure along the main north-south Interstate routes, including new high-tech freight-tracking technology and expedited border crossings. It has had some success, landing federal money to pilot cargo management technologies and winning praise from the Bush Administration. Speaking at a NASCO conference in Texas in 2004, then-Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta congratulated the organization for its efforts. "The people in this room have vision," Mineta said. "Thinking ahead, thinking long term, you began to make aggressive plans to develop...this vital artery in our national transportation system through which so much of the NAFTA traffic flows. It flows across our nation's busiest southern border crossing in Laredo; over North America's busiest commercial crossing, the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit; and through Duluth and Pembina, North Dakota, and all the places in between."
A few years ago NASCO put on its home page a map of the United States that more or less traced the flow that Mineta describes: Drawn in bright blue, the trade route begins in Monterrey, Mexico, runs up I-35 and branches out after Kansas City, along I-29 toward Winnipeg and I-94 toward Detroit and Toronto. The colorful, cartoonlike image seemed to show right out in the open just where NASCO and its confederates planned to build the NAFTA Superhighway. It began zipping around the Internet.
The organization soon found itself besieged with angry phone calls and letters. "I think the rumor going around was that this map was a blueprint and it was drawn to scale," says NASCO executive director Tiffany Melvin. (Given the size of the route markings, that would have heralded highways fifty miles wide.) Ever since the map went live, NASCO has spent a considerable amount of time attempting to refute charges like those made by right-wing nationalist Jerome Corsi, whose recent book The Late Great USA devotes several pages to excoriating NASCO for being part of the vanguard of the highway and the coming North American Union. Until recently, NASCO's website contained the following FAQs:
Is NASCO a part of a secret conspiracy?
Absolutely not... We welcome the opportunity to share information about our organization....
Will the NAFTA Superhighway be four football fields wide?
There is no new, proposed NAFTA Superhighway....
Is the map on the website an approved plan for the proposed NAFTA Superhighway?
There is no proposed NAFTA Superhighway.... The map is not a plan or blueprint of any kind.... They are EXISTING highways.
The Trans Texas Corridor is the first section of the proposed, new NAFTA Superhighway....
There is no proposed, new NAFTA Superhighway.
But NASCO is just one part of what Corsi and his ilk view as a grand conspiracy. There's also a federal initiative called the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), which they portray as a Trojan horse packed with globalists scheming to form a European Union-style governing body to manage the entire continent. The reactions of those in SPP to this characterization seem to range from bemusement to alarm. "There is no NAFTA Superhighway," Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Market Access and Compliance David Bohigian told me emphatically over the phone. Initiated in 2005, the SPP is a relatively mundane formal bureaucratic dialogue, he says. Working groups, staffed by midlevel officials from all three countries, figure out how to better synchronize customs enforcement, security protocols and regulatory frameworks among the countries. "Simple stuff like, for instance, in the US we sell baby food in several different sizes; in Canada, it's just two different sizes."
Another star in the constellation of North American Union conspiracies is the Mexican deep-water port of Lázaro Cárdenas. Located on the Pacific coast of the state of Michoacan, the port is undergoing a bonanza of investment and upgrades. According to a 2005 article in Latin Trade, the port is adding a terminal that could provide enough capacity to process nearly all of the cargo that comes into Mexico, making it "the logical trade route connecting the United States and Asia," in the words of the Mexican officials overseeing its overhaul. Since it's the only Mexican port deep enough to handle Super Panamax container ships from China--the most efficient means of shipping products across the Pacific--it's an attractive alternative to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which are unionized and increasingly congested. (More than 80 percent of Asian imports come in through these two ports.)
Of course, if cargo switches from Los Angeles to Lázaro Cárdenas, more and more manufactured goods will have to travel through Mexico to reach their US destination, and there will be a significant uptick in the northbound overland traffic. The Kansas City Southern Railroad company is already betting on that eventuality, spending millions of dollars to purchase the rail routes that run from the port up to Kansas City. At the same time, a business improvement group called Kansas City SmartPort, whose members include the local chamber of commerce, is pushing for Kansas City, which is already a transportation hub, to transform itself fully into a "smart port," a kind of intermodal transportation and cargo center. The group recently advocated a pilot program that would place a Mexican customs official in Kansas City to inspect Mexico-bound freight, relieving bottlenecks at the border. The notion of a Mexican customs official on American soil fired the imaginations of those already disposed to see a North American Union on the horizon, and SmartPort staff have been fending off angry inquiries ever since.
In his essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," Richard Hofstadter famously sketched the contours of the American tradition of folk conspiracy--a tradition that has, at different times, seen its enemy in Masons, Jesuits, immigrants, Jews and Eastern bankers. There's certainly a strong continuity between that tradition and the populist/nationalist ire that drives the NAFTA highway myth. Hofstadter's original essay was motivated in part by the activities of the John Birch Society, which today is one of the leading purveyors of the highway myth.
But there's something more. The myth of the NAFTA Superhighway persists and grows because it taps into deeply felt anxieties about the dizzying dislocations of twenty-first-century global capitalism: a nativist suspicion of Mexico's designs on US sovereignty, a longing for national identity, the fear of terrorism and porous borders, a growing distrust of the privatizing agenda of a government happy to sell off the people's assets to the highest bidder and a contempt for the postnational agenda of Davos-style neoliberalism. Indeed, the image of the highway, with its Chinese goods whizzing across the border borne by Mexican truckers on a privatized, foreign-operated road, is almost mundane in its plausibility. If there was a NAFTA highway, you could bet that Tom Friedman would be for it--what could be more flattening than miles of concrete paved across the continent?--and Lou Dobbs would be zealously opposed. In fact, Dobbs has devoted a segment of his show to the highway, its nonexistence notwithstanding. "These three countries moving ahead their governments without authorization from the American people, without Congressional approval," he said. "This is as straightforward an attack on national sovereignty as there could be outside of war."
Though the story of the highway has been seeded and watered in the fertile soil of the nationalist right wing--promoted by Birchers and Corsi, co-author of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's book about John Kerry--it also stretches across ideological and partisan lines. Like immigration and the Dubai ports deal, it divides the Republican coalition against itself, pitting the capitalists against the nationalists. And more than a few on the center-left have voiced criticisms as well: Teamsters president James Hoffa wrote in a column last year that "Bush is quietly moving forward with plans...for what's known as a NAFTA superhighway--a combination of existing and new roads that would create a north-south corridor from Mexico to Canada.... It would allow global conglomerates to capitalize by exploiting cheap labor and nonexistent work rules and avoiding potential security enhancements at U.S. ports." Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Boyda, from eastern Kansas, invoked its specter early and often in her improbably successful 2006 campaign against Republican incumbent Jim Ryun. A campaign circular inserted in local newspapers warned that "if built, this 'Super Corridor' would be a quarter-mile wide and longer than the Great Wall of China." Boyda told me that her attacks on the highway "hit a real nerve because enough people had the same concerns."
What might at first have been a niche obsession has bled, slowly but surely, toward the mainstream. "The biggest problem of these conspiracy theorists," says Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University and a leading proponent of increased North American integration, "is that they are having an effect on the entire debate."
Add up all the above ingredients--NASCO, SPP, Lázaro Cárdenas, the Kansas City SmartPort, the planned pilot program allowing Mexican truckers to drive on US roads--and you still don't have a superhighway four football fields wide connecting the entire continent. Which is why understanding the persistence of the NAFTA highway legend requires spending some time in Texas, where Governor Rick Perry and his longtime consigliere, Texas Department of Transportation commissioner Ric Williamson, are proposing the $185 billion Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC), 4,000 miles of highway, rail and freight corridors, the first of which would run up from the border through the heavily populated eastern part of the state. Plans for the TTC call for it to be up to four football fields wide at points, paving over as much as half a million acres of Texas countryside. The first section will be built and operated by a foreign enterprise, and when completed it would likely be the largest privatized toll road in the country.
And unlike the NAFTA highway, the Trans-Texas Corridor is very, very real.
In 2003, amid a dramatic drawn-out battle over a legally questionable GOP redistricting plan, the Texas state legislature passed House Bill 3588. At 311 pages, it's unlikely that many of those who voted for the bill had actually read it (and many have come to regret their vote), but it received not a single opposing vote. The bill granted the Texas Transportation Commission wide latitude to pursue a long-term plan to build a series of corridors throughout the state that would carry passenger and commercial traffic and contain extra right-of-way for rail, pipelines and electric wires.
What first triggered opposition was that under the plan, the new TTC roads would have tolls, something relatively novel in Texas. The state's Department of Transportation--known as TxDot--pointed out that the state's gasoline tax, which pays for road construction and maintenance, hadn't been raised since 1991, while population and commercial traffic were growing at a dizzying pace. Tolls, the governor and his allies argued, were the only solution. (Many TTC opponents propose raising the gasoline tax and indexing it to inflation.)
But opposition quickly spread, from those in metro areas concerned about the cost of their daily commute to ranchers angry that their land might fall under the TTC hatchet. According to Chris Steinbach, chief of staff for rural Brenham's Republican State Representative Lois Kolkhorst, when people in the district heard about the plan they responded by asking, "'Why would you want to do that?' It was a real front porch, rocking chair kind of question."
Meanwhile David and Linda Stall, a Republican couple from Fayetteville, Texas, began actively organizing opposition to the proposal. As early as 2004, they started bringing friends out to local TxDot hearings and launched the website Corridor Watch. By the time the 2006 gubernatorial election rolled around, a wild four-way race with incumbent Rick Perry pitted against three challengers, the TTC had become one of the most controversial issues of the campaign. Perry was re-elected with 39 percent of the vote, but with all three of his opponents campaigning passionately against the TTC, it was hardly a popular endorsement of the plan.
What was once scattered resistance is now a full-fledged rebellion. The Stalls have pushed through a plank in the state's GOP platform opposing the corridor, which means the governor is now at odds with the official position of his own party. In March thousands of Texans from across the state attended an anti-TTC rally on the Capitol steps, and liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans came together to co-sponsor a moratorium on the plan. It passed the House and Senate, only to be vetoed by Governor Perry. (A considerably weaker version was ultimately signed into law.)
Perry's continued support of the TTC in the face of mounting opposition is more than just a political liability; it's begun to resemble Bush's Iraq policy in its obstinate indifference to public opinion. This, along with the fact that the federal government sent a letter to the state warning it not to pass a moratorium on the project, has fueled conspiracy speculations about what the real goal of the TTC is. Kelly Taylor, a John Birch Society member and Austin-based freelance contributor to its magazine, has been working hard to connect the dots between the TTC and the NAFTA Superhighway. "It first surfaced because it was a local toll issue," she told me over coffee. "That, in and of itself, was alarming enough--all the corrupt politics that happened to make it come about. Then we thought, Wait a minute, something's not right here, this is bigger than just a local toll issue."
Taylor may represent a certain fringe of the anti-TTC efforts (her name prompted some eye-rolling among other activists), but there's a whole lot of cross-pollination between local concerns about the TTC and the growing North American Union mythology. When I asked David McQuade Leibowitz, a Democratic State Representative from San Antonio, why the governor was so determined to build the TTC, he put his boots up on his desk, leaned back in his chair and said, "I think Texas is the first link in the highway to run from South America to Canada. One nation under God. We see bits and pieces of it. We don't see it all. It makes us cringe and sick to our stomachs."
Texas Transportation commissioner Ric Williamson is one of those Texas personalities who seem almost self-consciously to will themselves toward caricature. One Democratic staffer in the Capitol casually referred to him as Darth Vader; Texas Monthly recently called him "the most hated person in Texas." Owner of a natural gas production company before becoming a state legislator in 1985, he has lately been reincarnated as a transit policy wonk, a role he plays as a cross between mid-twentieth-century road builder Robert Moses and J.R. Ewing from Dallas: the planner as good old boy. He does not suffer from a lack of confidence. "We're the greatest state agency you'll ever interview," he told me at one point. With his good friend Governor Perry hemorrhaging political capital, it's fallen to Williamson to advocate for the corridor and draw fire from its opponents.
At first the press contact for TxDot told me Williamson wouldn't be available, but after I informed her I'd lined up dozens of interviews with TTC opponents, she called me back a week before my trip to Texas for this article to set up an interview. When I was ushered into Williamson's office, he was in the midst of a discussion with one of the four staffers who flanked him. At my appearance in the doorway, he made no move to acknowledge my presence other than slightly pulling out the chair next to him, where, apparently, I was to sit.
Williamson's case is straightforward: The state needs a whole lot of new roads it can't pay for. The sheer population growth in Texas, particularly in the urbanized area in the eastern part of the state that contains San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Austin, combined with the projected increase in commercial traffic, has precipitated what Williamson says is an impending crisis. The TTC would provide the necessary increase in capacity at the low, low price the state can afford. "Our view is, you can run from the corridor if you want to," he told me, smiling, "but that's eventually what we'll build. Because that's where the fricking people live!" At that he shot up to walk over to a map of the state hanging on one wall, patting my shoulder with paternal authority as he passed. "It's so logical to me it drives me nuts."
He's right about the challenges the state faces, but it's a long jump from the diagnosis to the cure. Opponents of the plan point out that, as conceived, the corridor will run parallel to the existing Interstate, possibly far from the same cities where it's supposed to relieve congestion. (TxDot says state law will require the roads to connect to Interstates, which connect to cities.) On top of that, the current plan employs a novel privatized financing mechanism that has many crying foul.
Under a comprehensive development agreement (CDA) signed in March 2005, the Spanish concern Cintra (in partnership with Texas-based Zachry Corp.) will pay the state for the right to develop the roads along the corridor, where it will be able to collect tolls and establish facilities within the right-of-way for fifty years. This kind of road-building deal is commonplace in other parts of the world, often in places where government lacks the ready capital necessary to develop large infrastructure projects. It's called a BOT, for build, operate, transfer. Until recently it was unheard of in the United States.
The arrangement has been heavily criticized for a number of reasons. The CDA includes a noncompete clause that could conceivably prevent the state from building necessary roads in the future because they would "compete" with a stretch of the privatized TTC. It's also expensive. A recent state auditor's report estimated the cost for just the first section of the corridor at $105 billion. TxDot portrays the deal as a clever way of getting the private sector to pay for public roads, but eventually the total cost of the project, plus a layer of profit for Cintra-Zachry, will be coming out of the pockets of Texas drivers. Finally, the timeline for development of the project, which will be constructed piecemeal, is based on which sections of the corridor Cintra has identified as "self-performing," according to Williamson--in other words, those sections that contain a high enough volume of toll-paying passengers that they will turn a profit.
Williamson argues that the state simply has no choice. Or, as he put it to one reporter, "If you aggressively invite the private sector to be your partner, you can't tell them where to build the road." But this seems, to put it mildly, pretty ass-backward. The point of transportation planning is to provide the infrastructure for people to move efficiently, safely and quickly from point A to point B, not to maximize the profits of some conglomerate that managed to win a state contract. You wouldn't want to place, say, fire stations across a city using the same logic that guides the placement of Starbucks. But that's more or less the way the TTC is unfolding.
"I always think of the corridor as a payday loan," said Kolkhorst's chief of staff Chris Steinbach. "You're going to get a little money up front, but you're losing the long-term gain you're charged by the people to oversee." As he said this I noticed his computer's screensaver, which featured an image of the Texas Capitol dome with a bright red banner Photoshopped in that read Everything Must Go!
In my conversations with people in Texas, it seemed that the privatized nature of the road was what got folks the angriest. Bad enough that drivers would face tolls, that ranchers would have their land cut out from under them, but all for the financial gain of a foreign company? "If you liked the Dubai ports deal, you'll love my TTC land grab," taunts an animated Rick Perry on one anti-TTC website. The cartoon goes on to portray Cintra as conquistadors clad in armor riding in to steal Texans' treasure.
"What really drives this is economic," activist Terri Hall told me. "It's about the money. We're talking about obscene levels of profit, someone literally being like the robber barons of old. And this is one thing that government actually does well, build and maintain roads."
Hall is an unlikely defender of the public sphere. A conservative Republican and an evangelical Christian who home-schools her six children, she first got interested in road policy when TxDot announced plans to toll the road near her house, which runs into San Antonio. Outraged, she brought it up with her local State Rep, and when that didn't work, she began organizing. She founded the San Antonio Toll Party (like the Boston Tea Party, she notes) by pamphleting at intersections and calling friends. "It's really like the old days, during the American Revolution...just fellow citizens trying together to effect change."
Hall soon became part of the broader anti-TTC effort, and though she originally thought she was just fighting a corrupt local government, she's come to view her battle in a much broader context. "There are big-time control issues," she said. "Someone is really jockeying around to control some things here in America. It explains the open borders, it explains our immigration issues, it explains our free-trade issues, what it's doing to the middle class.
"It really all started with NAFTA," she continued. "There've been people like Robert Pastor and the Council on Foreign Relations. All these secretive groups." She laughed nervously and apologetically. "It sounds like a conspiracy. But I do know there are people who have tried for a long time to go to this global governance. They see there's a way to make it all happen by going to the heads of state and doing it in a secretive way so they can do it without a nasty little thing called accountability. So they won't have to listen to what We the People want."
Hall had arranged to meet me in the San Antonio exurbs, in a home design center that doubled as a cafe. Outside, a thunderstorm lashed the windows with rain. As she spoke, her newborn son propped next to her swaddled and napping, it occurred to me that she was living the twenty-first-century version of the American dream. She and her husband had moved to Texas from California in pursuit of cheap housing, open space and a place to raise their family. Their web-design business was successful; their children healthy. Why, I found myself thinking, was she so upset about a road?
Ric Williamson must often ask himself the same thing. Just as the White House was blindsided by the opposition to the Dubai ports deal, just as NASCO was shocked to find that a simple schematic map attracted angry phone calls, just as the Commerce Department was shocked to find a simple bureaucratic dialogue the subject of outrage, so too have Perry and Williamson seemed ambushed by the zealous opposition of people like Hall.
But what people like Williamson don't seem to understand is how disempowered people feel in the face of a neoliberal order whose direction they cannot influence. For corporatists within both parties (Williamson, it should be noted, was a Democrat while in the Statehouse), selling port security or road concessions to a multinational is inevitable, logical, obvious. To thousands of average citizens in Texas and elsewhere, it's madness or, worse, treason. Both the actual TTC and the mythical NAFTA Superhighway represent a certain kind of future for America, one in which the crony capitalism of oil-rich Texas expands to fill every last crevice of the public sector's role, eclipsing the relevance of the national government as both the provider of public goods and the unified embodiment of a sovereign people.
For Williamson, this is progress; for Hall, it's an outrage and a tragedy. "We have so little control over our own government," she told me, the alienation audible in her voice, thunder punishing the air outside. "We are really the last beacon of freedom in the world--the land of the free and home of the brave--and we're letting it slip away from under our noses."