Need for Speed: US-Mexico Trade Highway Sought

As trade booms throughout North America, a coalition of business and state leaders wants to build a high-tech artery to speed goods up and down the continent with an efficiency unmatched by any of the world's highways.

With federal support, Interstate 35 would become the "NAFTA Superhighway," named after the North American Free Trade Agreement, enacted in 1994 by Canada, Mexico, and the US. It would use technology like satellites or fiber optics to track and hasten goods through customs checkpoints.

"It would be the most modern and efficient highway in the world," says R. Scott Weiser, president of the Iowa Motor Truck Association in Des Moines.

The revamped highway would cut the drive time between Toronto and Guadalajara, Mexico, by 48 hours. And it would reduce costs for consumers by slashing transport fees as much as 20 percent, boosters of the project say.

The continent would benefit from a swift trade route largely because of the rising demand for transport fueled in part by the NAFTA treaty. By one estimate, total North American trade should balloon 73 percent by 2000.

Big uncertainties remain over the cost, financing, administration, and best high-tech hardware for improving the highway, which stretches 1,500 miles between Laredo, Texas, and Duluth, Minn.

The North America's Superhighway Coalition must assuage the jurisdictional jealousies of state transportation officials and the budgetary concerns of politicians at the state and federal levels. It must also meet the sizable challenge of securing the right-of-way to land adjacent to the highway.

Although the coalition has rallied the support of local officials along much of the route, it has yet to muster the formal support of Minnesota, Missouri, and Texas, says Dennis Tice, director of planning at the Iowa Transportation Department.

Still, the goal of the project - to drastically cut hauling costs - has won the attention of officials from Lake Superior to the Rio Grande.

"The project is moving along very nicely and is supported by hundreds of local, state, and federal government officials in the US, Mexico, and Canada," says David Dean, a consultant for the coalition and a former Texas secretary of state.

The highway must compete with other road projects for roughly $20 billion in annual federal funding. Congress will consider the act under which this funding would be reauthorized during the second half of next year. Other roads seeking federal funds include Interstate 69, another north-south route.

Under the proposed highway system, truckers would skirt border tie-ups by stopping at inland terminals for customs inspection. Officials would inspect and affix a seal to each truck. Electronic monitors would track the cargo. Either fiber optics or satellites would carry data for the system.

Boosters say the highway will strew many new jobs along its length. Iowa is especially hopeful. Mr. Weiser says, "Here we have the crossroads of I-80 and I-35, potentially making this one of the biggest freight crossroads in the world."

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