Does US Need a 'Superroad'?: Routes Pass Through Politicians' Home Turf

Does US Need a 'Superroad'?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Does the United States need a NAFTA highway - or is it "pure pork," as critics contend?

So far Congress has backed away from all NAFTA highway proposals - shocked at their cost. Last month it allocated $3 million that will keep NAFTA "corridor" options alive despite deep budget cuts. More money could be authorized this fall.

A closer look at the I-69 "extension" may explain a lot about why it and the other plans for a NAFTA highway, like the Energizer Bunny, "just keep on going...."

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James Newland, who heads the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition and lobbies for I-69, points out that it would run through the home states of the nation's most powerful politicians.

Beginning in Laredo, I-69 would travel north through the heart of Texas, where Republican House majority whip Tom DeLay is a booster. Then it would drift east through southern Arkansas, President Clinton's home state, north through Mississippi, Senate majority leader Trent Lott's state, and through Tennessee, home of Vice President Al Gore.

"Extending I-69 is one of the smartest, most common-sense things we can do," Mr. DeLay says. "I-69 has significant potential to create jobs and stimulate trade ... along the entire 1,800-mile corridor."

But how did it grow so long when the original plan was to build an I-69 extension between Indianapolis and Evansville, Ind.?

"We found out quickly that Congress wasn't interested in a 175-mile highway connecting one town to another," Mr. Newland was quoted saying in The Philadelphia Inquirer last fall. "The only way to get national attention was to create a coalition of states. That's how the I-69 idea grew beyond Evansville to Paducah, Ky., and Memphis, then to Shreveport, [La.], Houston, and Laredo, [Texas]."

But no NAFTA highway proposal, certainly not I-69, could have gone far without Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman. So far Mr. Shuster has taken several trips to Texas to evaluate firsthand the merits of I-69 and its competitor, the I-35 plan.

Like other powerful committee chairmen who determine which states receive federal dollars, Shuster attracts campaign contributions from well outside his home district in Pennsylvania.

Among the 37 states from which individual contributions flowed to Shuster, Texas - home to two prominent NAFTA-corridor proposals - has proved to be particularly big contributors.

According to 1995-96 Federal Election Commission records, Texans were the most generous contributors to Shuster after Pennsylvanians. Overall, Texans gave his campaign $98,611 - 27 percent of all the funds he received from individuals outside Pennsylvania.

A Monitor analysis of 1995-96 Federal Election Commission records shows that more than 90 percent of Shuster's 121 Texas contributions came from people in cities or towns along the proposed I-35 and I-69 NAFTA corridors.

"It is no accident all those contributions [to Shuster] came near the proposed highway routes," says Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a Washington think tank. "They are there for a reason."

Jeff Nelligan, a Shuster spokesman, responds that he has no idea why so large a proportion of Shuster's campaign contributions came from Texas - or from communities near the proposed highway corridors. But he says there is nothing inappropriate about the congressman's Texas contributions.

"He [Shuster] is a national congressman with a national constituency," Mr. Nelligan says. "Texas is an important state. That's where things come from."

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