By Terri Hall l July 17, 2012
Some have tried to convince the public that the Trans-Texas Corridor and NAFTA Superhighways are dead, never existed or are even a myth. Yet, Congress recently passed a new, two-year federal highway bill calledMoving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) that not only gives priority funding to these ‘high priority’ trade corridors, but also makes it easier to hand them over to private multi-national corporations using controversial public-private partnership (P3) contract arrangements that promote and enhance the tolling of America at the taxpayer’s expense.
On June 29, Congress voted to pass the House-Senate Conference Report and on July 6, President Barack Obama signed MAP-21 into law. As with most bills these days, Congress had to pass MAP-21 in order for us to know and better understand what’s in it. But even then, the lawmakers in Congress don’t make it easy to figure out the meaning of the legislative language used in their bills. MAP-21 is no exception, as with many of its transportation reauthorization predecessors – the obscure and arcane wording being used can, like a cancer, become a silent killer – in this case a multifaceted NATION KILLER – by increasing our $15 trillion debt and moving our nation ever closer to North American economic and political integration.
MAP-21 spends, in just over two years, what will take ten years to pay for in tax revenue. Congress voted for a transportation bill that legislates a general fund transfer and raids Wyoming’s Abandoned Mine Land trust fund of hundreds of millions of dollars. At this rate, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecasts that the Highway Trust Fund will run short of money by 2015. This massive overspending abandons the pay-as-you-go system set up by the fuel pump gas tax.
The pay-as-you-go system to finance highway maintenance and construction was soundly established under President Eisenhower in 1956 – but that endeavor had earned popular support and was widely debated in Congress. There has been no such public awareness let alone popular support nor public debate of the NAFTA Superhighway. In fact, legislators and respective administration officials either feign ignorance or claim it doesn’t exist fearing political upheaval once they admit to it having gotten its start as the North American Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated with Canada and Mexico in 1990. But subsequent approval of NAFTA, in and of itself, didn’t give Congress even implicit authority to quietly establish a North American superhighway trade corridor system, without public notice or debate. But that’s exactly what’s happened over the past 20 years.
The fact that America’s political elite – the House and Senate Democrat and Republican leadership over the years, as well as successive presidents of the United States, have quietly advanced the NAFTA Superhighway Trade Corridor and Toll Road System, under the radar, using periodic transportation reauthorization bills as ‘Trojan Horses’ to further economic integration among the U.S., Canada and Mexico, slowly robs the United States of its sovereignty and independence, where it becomes nearly impossible for ordinary citizens to take any notice. The standard line the politicians and special interests – big business and big labor – give to ‘We the people’ has become an all too familiar refrain such as highway safety, alleviating traffic congestion and maintaining roads and bridges that are falling apart all around us.
In the House, the MAP-21 conference report passed overwhelmingly with only 52 Republicans opposed to it. While in the Senate, only 19 voted against it – all Republicans. Not a single Democrat opposed the bill that advances three key NAFTA trade corridors, including TCC-69/I-69, CANAMEX and Ports-to-Plains.
The state of Texas is the focal point – the main thruway for China from the Pacific Ports of Mexico for the NAFTA Superhighway Trade Corridor and Toll Road System, accommodating seven (7) of the 12 major NAFTA corridors, utilizing three key points-of-entry at the Texas-Mexico border crossings and fanning out across the country, including El Paso (Camino Real and Spirit), Presidio (La Entrada) and Laredo (Ports-to-Plains, TTC-35/I-35, Gulf Crescent and TTC-69/I-69).
Does it have-ta be NAFTA?
Americans have seen their jobs exported for two decades, and many argue NAFTA is what started the downward spiral. Though most high tech jobs have gone to Asia, U.S. manufacturing got outsourced to Mexico, and eventually to China, too. Even American agriculture is feeling the adverse effects of NAFTA. You can drive through the San Joaquin Valley in California even now and see signs along what used to be a booming farm community criticizing Senator Barbara Boxer for using arcane environmental policy to destroy farmers’ ability to grow food in order to quietly enforce NAFTA’s import-export mandates.
Ditto for the Mexican trucking program that drew loud U.S. protests during the Bush Administration from truckers and those concerned with non-English reading drivers, smuggling, and illegal immigration, which Obama quietly approved in March 2011.
In June 2011, the Texas Legislature repealed the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC), a 4,000 mile network of multi-modal toll roads, toll rail, toll truck lanes, as well as tolled utilities, telecommunications, and pipelines of all sorts – that would all fall under the control of a private, foreign corporation for a half century. The TTC would be gigantic, 1,200 feet wide, which is like four football fields end to end. Dubbed the biggest land grab in Texas history, it would be near impossible to traverse across or drive cattle or school buses under it, since the developer only had to build overpasses where it intersected existing interstates.
The driving force behind Texas Governor Rick Perry’s ambitious plan was foreign trade – to accommodate the influx of what was initially thought to be goods from Mexico, but that soon got supplanted by even cheaper goods from China. The TTC’s primary purpose was to facilitate the free flow of people and goods across Open Borders from the deep water port, Lazaro Cardenas, in Mexico, into the interior of the U.S. and up into Canada.
Texans immediately realized the threat to state sovereignty and private property rights. They had a visceral reaction to having their land forcibly seized by the government through eminent domain and handed over to a foreign entity, in this case Spain-based toll giant, Cintra. The more they learned, the less there was to like.
NAFTA Superhighways revived
So though TxDOT announced it was pulling the plug on TTC-35 in 2009 due to strong persistent public opposition, it scaled back the remaining corridors and re-named the Trans-Texas Corridor to the ‘Innovative Connectivity Plan.’ The Federal Highway Administration officially concluded the TTC-35 project in August of 2010 by issuing a ‘No Action’ Record of Decision. However, Perry has continued to aggressively push a P3 program in Texas despite the public opposition and the expiration of P3 contracts in 2009, with only a few more exceptions granted during the 82nd legislature in 2011 – hence the P3s in Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW). Almost concurrently, the legislature removed the entire TTC chapter from the Texas Transportation Code in the same session.
Trans-Texas Corridor resurrected?
Right before MAP-21 gained passage, TxDOT released a Request for Information (RFI) on June 22 regarding the SH 130 tollway, the only stretch of the Trans-Texas Corridor TTC-35 to ever be built, seeking information from potential developers to build ‘ancillary facilities’ along SH 130 that could include gas stations, restaurants, hotels, and rest area development within the highway’s right of way.
It’s apparent that TxDOT is getting into the land development business. This concept is identical to the Trans-Texas Corridor. However, Section 228.053 of the Texas Transportation Code still gives the Department the authority to ‘contract with a person for the use of part of a toll project or system or lease part of a toll project or system for a gas station, garage, store, hotel, restaurant, railroad tracks, utilities, and telecommunications facilities and equipment and set the terms for the use or lease.”
Leasing out the public’s right-of-way is horrific abuse of eminent domain that creates a monopolistic cash cow for a single developer and the state of Texas. Why shouldn’t the original landowners be afforded the opportunity to develop that land instead of the state? How can other facilities (gas stations, etc.) off the toll road remain financially viable when there is a monopoly controlled by the state and a single developer actually located on the tollway itself?
NAFTA corridors get special treatment
So, for a time, Texans thought they were finally rescued from the Trans-Texas Corridor, thinking that if these trade corridors ever got built, it would be done as an existing free Interstate of old – not these new-fangled ‘innovative financing’ P3s that compromise the public’s sovereignty over these critical arteries. Then, on June 22, TxDOT announced its intention to lease out the public’s right-of-way anyway, just like the Trans-Texas Corridor was going to do, and on June 29, Congress passed MAP-21.
The three proposed NAFTA international trade corridors that connect with Mexico and Canada that are of primary interest in MAP-21 are: TTC-69/I-69 (from Laredo, Texas to Port Huron, Michigan), CANAMEX(from Arizona to Montana), and Ports-to-Plains (from Laredo to North Dakota). Three particular sections of the bill specifically advance these corridors. Several additional sections prioritize them through secondary means.
Section 1116 entitled ‘Prioritization of Projects to Improve Freight Movement,’ grants up to 95% federal funding for projects that improve the movement of freight. The bill also officially establishes a national freight program with a goal to ‘strengthen the contribution of the national freight network to the economic competitiveness of the United States.’ The Ports-to-Plains Alliance heavily lobbied for these special freight programs. Both programs will shift funds away from other state and national priorities and the needs of individual drivers, and essentially give them to private companies who move freight, including exclusive truck lanes.
In SECTION 1104, Sec. 103(C)(iii) under the National Highway System, it states: “Highways on the Interstate System shall be located so as…to the maximum extent practicable, to connect at suitable border points with routes of continental importance in Canada and Mexico.”
Again the emphasis is being put on creating surface transportation connections between the three North American countries of Canada, the United States, and Mexico, as yet another move closer toward the economic integration of the three countries in keeping with NAFTA.
The legal language here cannot be glossed over. “To the maximum extent practicable” carries with it a strong mandate to prioritize these trade corridors over other national priorities for ordinary Americans. Making the United States more interdependent with other countries rather than a SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT NATION, while shipping more American jobs overseas, can hardly be considered a legitimate national priority.
Also in SECTION 1104, it specifically makes two key designations: one for TTC-69/I-69 and the other for I-11 also known as CANAMEX. One of the hang-ups for I-69 was the fact that it would not immediately intersect an existing Interstate highway. So, the segments under construction in the Rio Grande Valley could not be officially designated as I-69 unless the rules changed. MAP-21 removes this requirement, specifically for I-69, and says it does not have to intersect an existing Interstate for 25 years.
In a letter to House leaders in May, ten Arizona and Nevada members of Congress urged support of the I-11 designation to complete the missing link connecting Phoenix to Las Vegas in the all-Interstate CANAMEX international trade corridor from the Mexican border of Arizona to the Canadian border in Montana.
The lawmakers made the connection clear, stating: “The completion of this corridor would provide total commerce connectivity between the United States, Mexico and Canada in the intermountain west, which is vital to the continued economic growth of the region.”
Though in the past this designation would guarantee federal funding, the restructuring of the national highway system gives the states more discretion with those funds. But there are other mechanisms in MAP-21 to get these corridors special funding.
Panama Canal expansion
With two of the three MAP-21 NAFTA superhighway trade corridors located in Texas, lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee held a hearing in May on the Panama Canal expansion and the coming trade tsunami through Texas.
According to testimony at the hearing, Tim Welch, Chairman of Transportation Excellence for the 21st Century, says Texas is not ready. Another expert testified that Texas needs an additional $1-to-$3.5 billion in funding to prepare its roads and rail transportation systems for the super containers headed our way. But why should taxpayers foot the bill to ease the flow of goods and boost profits for multi-national global companies?
In addition, TxDOT released an announcement on May 21 that it’s formed a Panama Canal Stakeholder Working Group primarily comprised of representatives from the agriculture, manufacturing, port, logistics, oil and gas, trucking, and rail industries. “This Stakeholder Group,” said Bill Meadows, Texas Transportation Commissioner, “will focus on enhancing and facilitating the flow of goods through and on our system, which does not stop at our ports but continues through our major corridors such as I-35 and I-69.”
Both I-35 and I-69 are major NAFTA Superhighway trade corridors.
SECTION 1120 entitled ‘Projects of National and Regional Significance’ further facilitates and even funds the NAFTA projects, but also prioritizes improving “roadways vital to national energy security.” Energy relates directly to the Ports-to-Plains trade corridor, since one of its goals under the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of 2005 is to move uneconomical wind power from West Texas around the state as well as to transport ethanol around the country.
While energy security may be in the national interest, taking thousands of acres of private property for massive international trade corridors is not the most prudent way to secure it. For if the government can come in and steal your land for the benefit of another private party, Americans’ personal wealth and liberties are stolen along with it.
The American diplomat during the Revolutionary War, Arthur Lee said it best: “The right of private property is the guardian of every other right…and to deprive a people of this, is in fact to deprive them of their liberty.”
When a highway project receives the congressional designation as a project of national and regional significance, it’s entitled to receive up to $500 million in federal funds to develop and construct it. Every NAFTA corridor will most assuredly receive this designation.
In another section of MAP-21, SECTION 1304, labeled ‘Innovative Project Delivery Methods,’ a project can receive up to 100% of the federal share in this category on a project that uses so-called innovative “financing, or contracting methods” and if it “accelerates project delivery.”
P3s are considered innovative financing, and though policymakers know it costs taxpayers more to privatize a public road, they claim the ability to accelerate the project that wouldn’t otherwise have enough funding justifies their actions. While a P3 project is not likely to receive 100% federal funding (why would the government sell-off our public roads to a private entity if the project is already paid for with tax money?), these private consortiums are sharks and solicit as much in federal and state subsidies as the politicians will allow them to get away with in order to ‘socialize’ their losses.
Not one P3 project in Texas has been 100% funded by the private foreign entity. In one case, the taxpayers brought three-quarters of the project cost to the table and the private entity, Cintra, a mere one-quarter. So this notion that the risk gets transferred from the taxpayers to the private entity is patently FALSE.
In Texas, there is an egregious example of the ‘State’ pursuing a P3 for a managed toll lane project on US Highway 183 in DFW that would be 100% paid for by $1.3 billion in taxpayer money, yet TxDOT is still handing it over to a private entity to become their toll collector and to maintain the road. The State can get away with charging far higher toll rates when they can outsource the sticky business of taxation to a private toll collection corporation. With the changes in MAP-21, the federal government is encouraging such public subsidies, too. MAP-21 helps legalize the THEFT of public assets.
So there are many federal funding sources embedded in MAP-21 to quietly get the NAFTA corridors built under the radar and out-of-sight of public scrutiny.
Adding tolls galore without a public hearing
SECTION 1316, gives the states the ability to add toll ‘managed lanes’ within the existing right- of-way of a road without ANY environmental review, which also happens to be the mechanism that triggers a PUBLIC HEARING. As a result, under MAP-21, a state highway department can literally come in and impose unlimited miles of highway toll lanes, HOV or HOT lanes, dedicated bus lanes, truck lanes, even privatizing the toll lanes using a P3, you name it, without ANY study of the economic, travel, or safety impacts and without a public hearing.
MAP-21 grants government entities cart blanche for the tolling of America – literally highway robbery. Since virtually all toll projects, whether public or private, now require non-compete agreements that prohibit or limit expansion of free routes surrounding toll projects, virtually every American will be subjected to constant impediments to our freedom to travel either by being forced to pay or be permanently relegated to hampered mobility and congestion.
This section alone is one of the most damaging provisions in MAP-21. It eliminates transparency and completely strips out ANY public accountability and allows un-elected, totalitarian state highway departments, like TxDOT, to impose unlimited toll-taxes at will. YOUR FREEDOM TO TRAVEL HAS JUST BEEN TAKEN PRISONER.
Slush fund for both public & private toll projects
The Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), the federal direct loan and loan guarantee program, will be expanded under MAP-21 by nearly ten times from $100 million, eventually up to $1 billion a year. What used to be a competitive program has now been transformed into easy credit for any project, with special emphasis given to freight movement, i.e. the NAFTA trade corridors. The Ports-to-Plains Alliance lobbied hard for and got special reduced TIFIA interest rates for rural corridors like Ports-to-Plains.
Taxpayer-backed TIFIA loans can also go to directly fund a private facility, if the private facility provides a “public benefit for highway users by way of direct freight interchange between highway and rail carriers,” another boon for freight-intensive NAFTA trade corridors.
There is no dedicated tax revenue that funds the TIFIA program (unlike the Highway Trust Fund which is largely funded by fuel pump gas tax revenues), so it’s primarily going to be funded through yet more federal borrowing of money we don’t have – DEBT. TIFIA can also raid pensions or other government plans to capitalize the fund, which is scary considering retirees depend on this money and the first project to ever receive a TIFIA loan went BANKRUPT – a P3 toll project in San Diego called the South Bay Expressway declared bankruptcy in less than three years after opening. The traffic projections were off by nearly 40,000 cars a day. The taxpayers took nearly an $80 million loss on that TIFIA loan. This can hardly be considered a successful program, yet Congress has just increased it almost tenfold and made it even easier for private entities to get TIFIA loans. The South Bay Expressway also happens to be the southernmost segment of California Route 125, or the southern leg of yet another major trade corridor from British Columbia, Canada to Baja, Mexico – otherwise referred to as BC to Baja.
The TIFIA program has become a political slush fund to finance P3s where private toll operators can easily snag public money to subsidize their losses on projects that have no business being built in the first place. Congress lets them exploit taxpayers this way by hiding behind the broad term ‘public benefit.’ I call it corruption – pure and simple.
Aside from the other ‘innovative finance’ giveaways in MAP-21, Congress adopted Senate provisions to give even greater tax breaks to private corporations – think P3s – by allowing them to depreciate PUBLIC assets, our public highways, up to 45 years (instead of 12-20 years).
With all these so-called incentives, designations, and funding mechanisms in place, the NAFTA Superhighway Trade Corridor and Toll Road System is clearly alive and well and in the process of becoming reality sooner rather than later. Coupled with the severely relaxed environmental review exceptions that give state DOTs unlimited authority to do ANYTHING they want within existing rights-of-way, deprives citizens of the opportunity for PUBLIC HEARINGS.
Americans will be very hard-pressed to find ways to stop it.
Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of eight turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to