One State, Two Different Texases

Austin and El Paso are polar opposites. Battle about a pipeline may deepen divide.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

How big is Texas? It's a favorite question here, good for an hour of idle porch-talk at least, during which obvious answers - 267,000 square miles, 19.4 million people - are strictly forbidden.

There are as many ways of measuring the size of the Lone Star State as there are people to count it. And a battle now being waged between two Texas cities 600 miles apart provides one measure of the state's vastness - physical and cultural.

Indeed, few states could contain two cities as dissimilar as tony "Silicon Hills" of Austin - infused with millions of dollars from its booming technology industry - and hardscrabble El Paso, a garmentmaking town on the Mexico border. Now, these towns are the bookends for a debate springing from the state's historic lifeblood - oil.

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It is the latest chapter in the Dickensian tale of these Texas cities, one thriving in the best of times, the other clawing to pull out of the worst. And it threatens to deepen the divide between these two Texas archetypes.

"It's Jekyll-and-Hyde culture difference," says Prof. Shane Davies of the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Policy. "On the one hand you have Austin, with its tremendous economic growth, and new, beautiful people and new millionaires popping up every day. On the ... opposite end, you have borderland places [such as] El Paso, where the terrain is harsh and severe, and poor, hard-working people are just trying to eke out a living."

The furor centers around a plan by the Houston-based Longhorn Partners Pipeline Co. to reverse the flow of a dormant crude-oil pipeline and convert it to carry gasoline from the Gulf of Mexico to the Southwest.

For El Paso, a city of 720,000 where the median income is $14,480, the pipeline promises liberation from an underserved fuel market where pump prices are typically 10 to 15 cents per gallon higher than the rest of the state.

For Austin, however, the project holds nothing but worries that the pipeline could someday be an environmental disaster, polluting its water supply and pristine lakes. With these concerns in mind, the city recently sued Longhorn, charging that the company had not developed an adequate safety plan. And on Aug. 25, a federal district court ordered Longhorn to conduct a full environmental-impact statement - a process that could push the pipeline's December operation date back two years.

"Austin has been successful because it's a rare place ... in terms of what it can offer, such as rolling, green hills and good, clean water," says Mayor Kirk Watson. "We have to do everything we can to protect that."

If the pipeline is delayed, it wouldn't be the first time that El Paso felt isolated by Austin. Indeed, with a 71 percent Hispanic population and a location on the state's westernmost tip, El Paso has long felt distanced by culture and geography from the predominantly Anglo government in Austin.

Much of the prosperity in Austin is attributed to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a pact under which border communities have paid dearly. Within 18 months of the deal, 10,000 El Paso factory jobs went south, contributing to the city's 11.4 percent unemployment rate.

Meanwhile, the armada of cargo trucks that took their place has only added to the feeling that El Paso - which means "The Pass" in Spanish - is merely a "place between places." Not only that, but the mounting sorties of 18-wheelers have made El Paso the second-busiest port of entry in Texas - wreaking havoc on the city's transportation infrastructure. Yet state highway allocations have remained at pre-NAFTA levels.

In Austin, though, the 1990s have been a time of unparalleled prosperity. Nestled between the pastoral foothills of the Texas Highlands and Interstate 35, the nation's most important trade artery, Austin has emerged as America's version of Paris's Left Bank of the 1930s - a mecca for artists, free-thinkers, and opportunity-seekers of all stripes.

The metro region of 1.1 million revels in its mantle as "the Live Music Capital of the World," and is home to technology-sector successes such as Samsung and Dell Computer.

Longhorn officials say Austin's fears that the pipeline could hurt this prosperity are unfounded. It maintains the pipeline is safe and has filed an expedited appeal, saying a two-year delay could kill the partnership venture involving Exxon and Amoco, among other companies.

Back in El Paso, the impact of any delay would be more tangible. Cab driver John McBride sits in lunch-hour gridlock, figuring air-conditioning calculus. The decision of whether to have cold air means either 9.2 or 11 miles per gallon. With only $80 to $90 to spend on gas each month, the price of gas is a question of comfort for him and his customers. "I usually keep it on," Mr. McBride says, "unless I'm having a real bad day."

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