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Ports-to-Plains: A Win-Win Solution for Urban and Rural Texas

Katie Lingor, Executive Director, Borger Economic Development Corporation

The I-35 corridor, which bifurcates in Kansas City to include I-29, is often referred to as the NAFTA Superhighway. It sees $97B in goods and services exported from the US to Mexico each year, with increases of 13% annually observed. It also connects several of Texas’ largest metro areas, including San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas-Fort Worth. So naturally, I-35 is also one of the most crowded roadways in the Lone Star State.

For the last few years, “traffic talk” to the urban Texas dweller has become akin to chatting about the weather. In the Texas Panhandle, we make small talk about how windy or cold it might be on a certain day, whereas Austinites and San Antonians can be overheard commiserating with one another at a work conference about their sorrowful daily commutes.  Texas’ urban areas, particularly those communities along the I-35 corridor, are suffering from sometimes extreme congestion and traffic. As it stands now, I-35 moving through Austin is the worst traffic in Texas, costing drivers more than 1.6M hours/year.

With an influx of new people every day and predicted continued population growth in Texas over the coming decades, the urbanization trend in our state is something that must be considered.  Congested traffic, lack of affordable housing, and other quality-of-life concerns are sure to get worse as population density in cities along I-35 rises in the coming years. Alleviating traffic issues along the state-long I-35 corridor is expensive, with Austin authorizing $9B to just fix about 30 miles of the 407-mile stretch of highway throughout the state. And while urban areas are swelling to an untenable rate, the western portion of the state is struggling to capture its share of Texas’ new growth. So herein lies the challenge: Urban areas need to alleviate truck and freight traffic to reduce costly highway congestion, while West Texas needs connectivity and access to new industries and opportunities.  Thankfully, both problems could be remedied by the same solution–expansion of the Ports-to-Plains corridor, a second major north-south interstate for the shipping of goods.

The proposed Ports-to-Plains interstate highway would allow for the efficient transportation of goods and people from our southern border, north through West Texas, and on to other western states and, eventually, Canada.  The location of this new interstate is already designated, consisting of various existing federal and state highways through Texas and other heartland states. The benefits of the Ports-to-Plains interstate are not limited to more convenient transportation. New jobs, economic growth, and reduced vehicle accidents were all found to be probable outcomes in a recent Texas Department of Transportation feasibility study.

Roughly paralleling the I-35 corridor through Texas, but in our western regions where land is affordable and plentiful, the new interstate has quality-of life-benefits as well as economic benefits to both the urban and rural dwellers. We live in an age of convenience where location and logistics are top of mind for many businesses, so access to a major highway can make-or-break a Texas town.  Easier access to a new interstate will expand trade, allow many communities in West Texas to provide new and old residents with jobs, resources, and the prospect of varied lifestyles that can include appreciation for wide open spaces as well as entertainment, shopping, cultural advantages.

It has been acknowledged that the state, the country, and North America in general will gain from the ease of movement of goods and services and the resulting efficiencies for industry, manufacturing supply chains, and distribution hubs, and a possible resurgence of North American trade with less dependency on Asian suppliers.  As we plan for the small communities and the larger cities in the western portion of our state to grow and thrive, we can pay attention to lessons learned about unplanned explosive growth in some of our eastern cities.  We can plan more wisely for sustainable and strategic growth that benefits all of the people in Texas.  I think that the Ports-to-Plains interstate project can enable this type of planning, and I look forward to discussions about how to move forward with this important access.


Just a thought....

Community Leaders Speak is a series of writings prompted by the discussions during IC2 Regional XLR8 Program which convenes 150 leaders from 58 communities across all regions of Texas, September – October 2020. As a part of the IC2 Regional Economic Recovery InitiativeRegional XLR8 is a new type of “accelerator” that helps communities rethink recovery, take strategic action, and build resilience. During this intensive 6-week program, leaders actively engaged in full & regional group discussions around human-centered approaches.