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Officials want to expand Ports to Plains trade route through regionPosted on July 5

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LIMON, Colo. - For Joe Kiely, the drone of thousands of trucks passing his Colorado plains town signals economic prosperity.

The caravans carrying billions of dollars worth of goods move along a 2,300-mile, mostly rural, two-lane trade route from Mexico to Canada, and frequently stop in on towns like Limon and bring business to their hotels, truck stops, gas stations and fast food restaurants.

If the Ports to Plains Corridor is going to be able to handle the increasing flow of goods, Kiely said, the highways need to be expanded. To realize the corridor's potential, Kiely and municipal officials up and down the highway want federal backing for a 20-year plan to expand the road to four lanes.

Some $900 million has been spent since 1997, and this year more than $80 million in stimulus funds went to road construction and improvements on parts of the highway in Colorado, Texas and New Mexico.

"Whether or not the four-lane divided highway gets built in the 20-year time, the amount of traffic that's on these will grow," said Kiely, vice chairman of operations for the Ports-to-Plains Corridor Coalition, a Lubbock, Texas-based lobbying group.

"The result of that will be a more unsafe situation. You can only put so many trucks on a two-lane road."

The roadway goes from the Port of Raymond on the U.S. border with Saskatchewan to Laredo, Texas. It winds its way through Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and North and South Dakota.

Capitalizing on the North American Free Trade Agreement, the corridor moves produce, livestock, petrochemicals and oil and gas equipment, Kiely said. His group has reached out to Mexico and Canada for political support, and Alberta, Saskatchewan's neighbor to the west, recently joined it.

"It only stands to reason that if there is an opportunity to increase our trade, or streamline our trade, that we should be a partner," said Leonard Mitzel, a member of Alberta's Legislative Assembly. Mitzel noted Canada's oil industry depends on trucks and machinery imports from the U.S. and Mexico.

The nine states accounted for $43.2 billion in corridor truck exports to Mexico in 2007 and $38.2 billion in imports, said the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics' Commodity Flow Survey. They also generated $15.8 billion in truck exports to Canada in 2007 and $13 billion in truck imports.

More billions are shipped among the states. In 2002, for example, Colorado's corridor truck trade with Texas totaled $4.9 billion, according to the latest bureau data. Trade among all nine states totaled $12.4 billion.

Kiely said the group has been talking with leaders in the Mexican border state of Coahuila because of its many maquiladoras, or assembly plants, and because Coahuila can provide a trade path to central Mexico.

Work on the portion spanning Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado is expected to cost $2.3 billion over 20 years, generating $4.5 billion in new jobs, sales taxes, manufacturing and lodging. Estimates for the other states are under way.

In Limon, where the town center was nearly destroyed by a 1990 tornado, Kiely said Ports to Plains will lure manufacturing to supplement lodging and food, which employ roughly 300 people.

Limon's central Colorado location, cheap land prices, open space for trucks and lack of congestion can be attractive to companies, he said.

About 2 million trucks pass through Limon every year - 1.3 million on the corridor and 700,000 on Interstate 70, which runs west to Denver. The way Kiely sees it, a town created in 1888 as a water stop for trains can retain youth who now leave for better opportunities elsewhere.

"That's what keeps a town going," he said.

Del Rio, Texas, a Mexican border town of 45,000 about 160 miles northwest of Laredo, also has lost population to larger cities, said Sid Cauthorn, a banker who serves as coalition chairman. He's hoping the trade route changes that.

"I'm not knocking Denver, Dallas, San Antonio or anybody," he said. "I'm just saying our communities would be better off if our kids could stay."

Kiely has an answer for those who think 20 years is a long time to wait.

"If you don't start now, you don't get it," he said. "It was 1990 when the tornado came through here. … Where are we from 1990 now? Almost 20 years."

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