Ever since the North American Free Trade Agreement relaxed trade restrictions among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, contractors and developers have longed to sell Congress on a new "NAFTA superhighway."
Today, lawmakers are weighing at least five north-south "free-trade corridor" proposals. One would extend Interstate 69 and cost $8 billion. Another would upgrade I-35 from Laredo, Texas, to Kansas City and I-29 from Kansas City to Winnipeg. Farther west, people talk of a "Cana-Mex" highway.
NAFTA took effect Jan. 1, 1994. It created a single integrated market of 400 million North Americans with a $6.5 trillion economy. Most tariffs on cross-border trade are already gone. The rest are to be phased out over the next 15 years.
James Newland, a proponent of a NAFTA superhighway, envisions something like today's limited-access interstates - a four-lane divided highway. Tiffany Newsom, another booster, imagines an I-35 that would also include fiber-optic lines that would feed information to drivers, advising them of traffic congestion or weather problems.
Weighing the Pros and Cons of a NAFTA Superhighway
Is a more direct link needed between the US Midwest, Canada, and Mexico?
Yes: Currently there is no single, continuous interstate highway connecting the Great Lakes and the nation's Midwestern industrial heartland with the Mexican border. Completion of the southern leg of I-69 would create a Canada-to-Mexico trade route and nurture economic growth along the 1,800-mile, eight-state corridor.
No: There is no need for a "continuous" interstate to connect Canada to Mexico through the American Midwest. The US already has 160,000 miles of highways. I-35, for instance, already runs from Laredo, Texas, to Kansas City, where it connects to I-29 and on to Winnipeg.
Is NAFTA producing so much truck traffic that a new highway is imperative?
Yes: As tariffs fall over the next 13 years under the 1994 NAFTA agreement, US trade with Mexico is projected to double from its current rate of $110 billion a year to $225 billion a year by 2010. The lion's share of NAFTA commerce today, 72 percent, travels by truck. The Texas Department of Transportation predicts a jump in NAFTA-related truck traffic by 2011. So far, growth is modest.
No: Experts in the field say no large increases in NAFTA-related truck traffic have been documented. The White House last week reported only modest benefits to the US from NAFTA - it raised gross domestic product by $13 billion - only a tiny bump in a $8 trillion economy. Roy Kienitz of the Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington says he has "never seen reliable travel data and traffic data that show ... a significant impediment to get[ting] trucks from Ontario to California or Saskatchewan to Tennessee."
Would a new NAFTA highway, such as I-69, be a good investment?
Yes: An I-69 highway corridor would cost at least $7.2 billion but yield $11 billion in travel-efficiency benefits between 1999 and 2029, says James Covil of Wilbur Smith Associates, which produced the feasibility study for the Federal Highway Administration. It would add $4 billion in value to the national economy over the cost of the project. An overall cost-benefit analysis shows $1.57 in benefits for every dollar spent, he adds.
No: Opponents say current cost-benefit analyses are suspect. A half-dozen feasibility studies have been conducted since 1966 on the "extension" of I-69 from Indianapolis to Evansville, Ind. None of those recommended it be built, the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center says.
Would farmland and environmental damage be light or heavy?
Light: Along most of the I-35 route, existing highways would be retrofitted, causing little environmental damage. In the case of I-69, the exact route is not determined, and environmental studies haven't been done. In "new terrain" sections of I-69, proponents say loss of farmland and forest would be minimal. A draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) submitted for the Indiana portion of I-69 last year indicated no insurmountable environmental obstacles.
Heavy: In Indiana alone, 90 miles of new highway construction would destroy 3,000 acres of farmland and 1,000 acres of forest. It would be built through 30 miles of "sensitive terrain" and wetlands, says Alexander Ewing of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. The road would also degrade already poor air quality in Indiana, he says. The Environmental Protection Agency recently rejected the Indiana draft impact statement as "seriously deficient."