Objects in Mirror: Texas and the Future of the American Highway

In a decision that seems to defy intuition, the home state of the road that will be, when construction is finished, the widest highway in the world, has placed a two-year moratorium on the building of new toll roads.
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Last week in Texas, America's fifty-year love affair with the highway became a little more complicated.

In a decision that seems to defy intuition, the government of the oil state, the pro-development state, the home state of the road that will be, when construction is finished, the widest highway in the world (Houston's 26-lane Katy Freeway), has placed a two-year moratorium on the building of new toll roads.

The bill itself is not particularly potent; many roads are exempt, and it only slows the pace of construction for those that aren't. But the moratorium reflects the Texas state legislature's "unease" about a project called the Trans Texas Corridor. The Trans Texas Corridor is a privately-funded toll road that will run 4,000 miles of new highway through the state. Ten car and truck lanes will be flanked by several rail lines and a number of utility lanes that will carry materials like petroleum and fiber optic cables. It is one the largest road schemes since Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System made the car one of the defining features of the American landscape.

Even as a more "green" culture takes hold in this country, the existing infrastructure of most American cities -- as well as the power of the automobile and fuel industries -- means that building new highways is still the easiest and most appealing option for alleviating traffic congestion in cities, suburbs and mushrooming exurbs. But a dreamy collision of interests has spawned bipartisan opposition to the Trans Texas Corridor.

It seems that everyone other than Texas Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Department of Transportation is worried about the Trans Texas Corridor. Perry has loudly claimed that the future of transportation in Texas depends on this road. He says it will relieve congestion in cities like Houston and Austin, that it will reduce air pollution, and that it will promote economic opportunity. He is less vocal about the campaign contributions he is receiving from Cintra, the Spanish company behind the project.

But Texans are not buying Perry's argument. Both the state Democratic and Republican platforms oppose it. Rural residents are worried about losing their land; urban residents are worried because the road runs nowhere near their cities and therefore will do little to relieve congestion. Environmentalists are worried because the proposed route will eat up something close to one million acres of farmland. And new roads have never permanently alleviated pollution or traffic; prevailing wisdom among experts is that new roads mean more cars.

Conservatives are also worried. They are worried because the one million acres of farm and ranch land would be seized through eminent domain. They are worried because the funding for, and the primary benefactor of the new road's tolls is a foreign company. They are worried about economic damage to Texan towns that line the main interstate, and perhaps most of all, they are worried that a severely limited-access highway originating from the Mexican border will provide a new conduit for illegal immigration.

The moratorium is not going to stop this highway. Nor is it necessarily evidence of the greening of American culture. But the best way to predict what will happen when the Corridor is built is to look at the lessons of Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System. It is one of the primary reasons why America is the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases; it certainly contributed to the disintegration of American small-town life, and more subjectively, as Jon Steinbeck wrote in Travels With Charlie, made it "possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing."

The Trans Texas Corridor will exacerbate every one of those problems, and it seems that people in the state of Texas are not interested. Somewhere between conservative fear of illegal immigrants and liberal fear of more pollution, what would traditionally be an environmentalists' crusade has become a broader cause.

This highway is not yet a national issue. The New York Times mentioned it for the first time last week, two-thirds of the way through an article that used the words "raucous, "strife and "rancor" to describe the legislative session that mandated the moratorium. But if what is happening in Texas is any indicator of what is happening nationally, either in the planning of massive new roads or for the collection of strange bedfellows that are interested in stopping them, it is a significant change worth national attention.

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