Lane Departure

by Passenger Service: State troopers ride-along with truckers in crash study

Controversial politics always makes for very strange bedfellows. The increasingly heated issue of even freer trade among the three NAFTA states has unified a very odd assembly of special-interest groups and lobbyists raging against what they believe are plans currently underway to create a North American union, controlled by — you guessed it — Washington.

The groups, which include the populist American far-right John Birch Society as well as the leftist Canadian Action Party, among others, claim that the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of North America — a trilateral approach to prioritizing trade and security between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico — is actually a secret Big Brother scheme cooked up by the three nations to establish a new continental order.

These two groups in particular — who likely would never be caught agreeing on any other issue — recently held a press conference in Ottawa to condemn the conspiratorial agenda. They allege that hidden deep ¬≠within the SPP are plans to expropriate huge plots of privately owned land to build a so-called NAFTA Superhighway.

You’ve probably heard of it before, although there are many versions floating around. The most talked-about design supposedly has the private toll highway connecting all three NAFTA countries from northern Mexico, through the center of Texas, up the I-35 through Kansas and the U.S. Midwest, and across the border to Winnipeg and beyond.

Branches would extend from the main artery to the west coast, and through Ohio and Michigan to Ontario border crossings. The highway itself, the groups warn, would be colossal: 10 lanes (or four football fields) wide, with fiber-optic cables, oil pipelines, and rail lines running along either side. Whew!

So, is it true? Well, we know this: The governments of all three nations have, not surprisingly, denied such claims while pledging their commitment to identifying “high priority corridors” to enhance trade flow. At the same time, there is no language in the SPP that proposes a new, separate superhighway cutting swaths of land through the continent. That said, bureaucrats are keeping many details of the SPP close to the chest. And where there’s secrecy, there’s fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

Frank Conde is director of communications for NASCO (North American Super Corridor Coalition) — a Texas-based group of trade interests from all three NAFTA nations. In an interview with Today’s Trucking, Conde comes out firing at his critics: “Let me say plainly as possible. As for a proposed gigantic NAFTA Superhighway, there is no such thing. None at all.”

All that groups like his are promoting, insists Conde, is “the maintenance and upkeep of existing transportation corridors that were already in place and serving all three countries long before NAFTA.”

That effort alone, he adds, is a tough-enough sell, considering there are precious few dollars available for infrastructure these days.

Conde says the North American highway system — in the U.S. in particular — is aging, over-capacitated, and polluted. The infrastructure has worn down with a 30-percent increase in the population over the last 50 years and likely won’t be able to handle the expected 30-to-40 percent jump in freight tonnage by 2020. He adds that his group seeks to enhance existing north-south lanes between the Mexican and Canadian borders.

Work, the way he sees it, would include lane capacity expansion where possible and replacement of older, decaying structures. Conde also advocates building more rest areas for truckers and “electrifying” main corridors for anti-idling, as well as for security tracking purposes.

As for theories that a superhighway would lead to a single currency, erase sovereign borders, eliminate jobs, and further pollute the environment, Conde describes them as “pure lunacy.” He says he’s bewildered by the kind of traction these “fringe” groups (who are supported by a handful of protectionist Republican politicians) have gotten recently in the media.

Protectionists say ‘supercorridors’ would blur sovereignty of the three
NAFTA nations. Proponents say they just want smoother flowing trade.

It’s true that the groups are becoming successful in advancing the notion that new highways are an actual threat to the American way of life. CNN’s Lou Dobbs gave the John Birch Society some airtime last year. And more recently, after hearing about proposals to build a privately funded highway in Texas (supposedly the first leg of the NAFTA superhighway), Dobbs declared that it was a “mind-boggling concept,” and the politicians who promote it have “gone utterly mad.”

Canadian Trucking Alliance CEO David Bradley can’t help but laugh off such rhetoric. In fact, the way he sees it, all these efforts in the U.S. surrounding “supercorridors” don’t take the issue of international free trade seriously enough.

“I think it all has more to do with getting highways built in these jurisdictions,” says Bradley, who adds that some of these pro-highway coalitions need to do a better job of understanding freight patterns and Canadian border issues.

“If you want true NAFTA highways, then we need a true NAFTA environment, which includes such things as opening the southern border; an effort to harmonize weights and dimensions, and making sure that whatever we do to make the supply chain more productive, isn’t impaired by what happens at the border.”

Sure, from purely a truck-centric point of view, a new NAFTA superhighway sounds great in theory, says Bob Dolyniuk, general manager of the Manitoba Trucking Association. And while Manitoba is arguably the Canadian province that could have the most to gain from a state-of-the-art ¬≠separate “Midwest” freight corridor, Dolyniuk believes Winnipeg can once again become the main hinge at the top of a modernized North American trade triangle just with some enhancements and innovation to existing infrastructure.

It actually appears that both the feds and the province are starting to put in place the bricks and mortar for such a concept. The Manitoba International Gateway Strategy, for example, seeks to establish the province as a sustainable transportation and distribution gateway of choice for mid-continent trade. In theory, a share of Asian containers entering from western ports would be ¬≠railroaded to Winnipeg, which — with low land and energy costs, and capacity to spare — would act as a major sorting and redistribution hub for goods destined to all points across the continent. The strategy would also include an inland port, marine port, and global air cargo center.

“Granted, a significant portion of Asia-Pacific container traffic comes through the west coast. But somewhere along the way, those containers are going to have to be sorted out and redistributed. What more logical place than Winnipeg?” asks Dolyniuk. “I would say that if the proper infrastructure is in place, Winnipeg would be a more effective consolidation center than Chicago or Minneapolis.”

Clayton Gording, vice-president of operations for Reimer Express Lines, also foresees big opportunities for Winnipeg with or without a brand new “superhighway.”

“Goods from Asia could come from Price Rupert and Vancouver to Manitoba, be de-stuffed and distributed for the U.S. That kind of thing can have a very big impact,” he says. “Our location is so perfect, that you can reach so many places within 24 hours.

“But,” he adds quickly, “I think we’re still a ways off.”

And if groups like the John Birch Society and Canadian Action Party keep having success spinning the issue, it’ll be even longer still.

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