Wednesday, May 22, 2024 May 22, 2024
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It’s a symbol of the new Texas economy. It may prove that we can beat the Japanese, at least on the subatomic level. But will this megabillion-dollar project put bread on the table in North Texas?

IN THE PRIVACY OF HIS WASHINGTON OFFICE ONE DAY IN MARCH, TEXAS REP. Joe Barton is captivated by a vision of the promised land. Wearing a maroon tie with three pens tucked neatly in the pocket of a starched blue shirt, the bespectacled Barton is no portrait of a power politician. A weary aide, ostensibly listening in on things from a conspicuous corner of the room, nods off occasionally, adding a touch of ennui to Barton’s presentation. But for a moment, the earnest and likable Republican transcends the mundane language of a backbencher for a rap from the soul. The glint in his eye is unmistakably Reaganesque, and his hands move as briskly as a sprightly conductor’s. Barton is nearly rapturous about the “high-tech oasis, ” the research and development wonderland known in less spiritual terms as the Superconducting Super Collider, the biggest atom smasher-in fact, the biggest scientific instrument-ever. “It’s not a religion, ” Barton says of his campaign to build the collider in his House district. “But it’s certainly a mission, a quest. “

It is a quest that would make Quixote envious. Barton and his band of fellow travelers pack more pork-producing clout than a barbecue hosted by J. R. Ewing-despite the fact that nearly everywhere the collideristas look these days, they face the nagging Nineties reality of fiscal restraint. With new caps on domestic discretionary outlays, Congress is squeezing nickels like an unemployed steel-worker with two kids and a house payment. In one indication of fiscal uncertainty, the U. S. House of Representatives approved $434 million for the collider, $100 million less than SSC backers had requested. Even so, the collider’s powerful coalition of physicists, corporate moguls, and eager pols is charging for the federal coffers as if these were still the fat, happy 1980s.

This year’s White House-backed $534 million request alone represents an exponential jump from the $243 million handed out during the 1990 budget go-round. And with major construction costs just years away, collider budget requests are expected to soar to nearly a billion dollars.

Meanwhile, Ellis County, where the SSC is to be built, just 30 miles south of downtown Dallas, is already abuzz with activity. Surveyors comb the blackland prairies. Millions of dollars in SSC-re-lated buildings are under construction. Residents who have already been bought out have packed up and moved away. In front of one empty home, a tricycle lies in the front yard like a creepy scene from The Andromeda Strain. Houses are boarded up, and local residents report vandalism, while project officials plan to set up a store where they will sell items salvaged from old homes. The Super Collider is roaring into North Texas like one heck of a bureaucratic freight train.

And the way the collideristas see it, there is little in the way to stop the project. The SSC has cleared the environmental review process, although nagging questions do remain about potential contamination of ground water and unexpected cost overruns. A February 25 letter written by an SSC lab official, and obtained by D Magazine, raises questions about unexpected costs related to construction of a crucial underground detector hall-a vital link in data collection. And an April 1991 U. S. General Accounting Report raises equally pressing questions about a potentially unstable geological formation where a section of the collider tunnel will be buried. Not a problem. Department of Energy officials say. A ground water monitoring program is underway, and extensive exploratory drilling and alternative plans for the detector hall should assure that the project will remain on schedule and on budget.

Even the threat of fire ants, once the delight of headline writers across the nation, has been brushed aside like mosquitoes. Joe Cipriano, the DOE project director, says no more precautions need to be taken against fire ants than against other pests, since standard building practices should control any problems. So much for a 1990 environmental impact statement that labeled the insects quite a nuisance, concluding that “fire ants are attracted to electrical fields and are occasionally responsible for power outages, disruption of telephone signals, fouling of air conditioners, and interruption of traffic signals… Routine surveillance and control of any species of ant in or near sensitive electrical equipment are highly recommended. “

No, it seems the only thing that stands in the way is the increasingly sticky funding issue. The desperate times have been met with brother-can-you-spare-a-dime urgency from collider backers. Deputy Energy Secretary W. Henson Moore warned recently that unless Congress coughed up the $534 million, thus demonstrating a real commitment to the project, a hoped-for $1. 7 billion in crucial foreign contributions might never materialize. Numerous political insiders believe $534 million is far too little to attract these phantom foreign dollars, but no matter. “Other nations are watching, ” declared Moore, testifying before the skeptical Senate Subcommittee on Energy Research and Development.

Such pressure tactics are part of doing business on Capitol Hill. But they’re also part of the collideristas’ religion that has helped boost the collider into what cynics call a massive “quark barrel. ” The collider is a politician’s dream and a contractor’s most lurid fantasy-delivering the old double whammy of jobs and lucrative government handouts for the likes of General Dynamics, Westinghouse, and Texas Utilities. The Energy Department’s shopping list for the collider reads like an industrialist’s dream: 190, 000 tons of steel and other metal; 60 million feet of superconducting wire for use in the collider’s huge magnets; 1 million cubic yards of concrete for the underground tunnel and experimental halls; the world’s largest liquid helium refrigeration plant to cool the magnets; several million dollars worth of electronic equipment, including computers; and 2 million square feet in laboratory space and buildings for accelerator equipment.

Whether it is Barton speaking in visionary terms or Moore testifying in melodramatic bureaucratese, the collider folks are selling America on a project shrouded in enough myth to warrant a study by Joseph Campbell. This is not to say that the collider is an unworthy endeavor without vast benefits for Dallas, Fort Worth, and the country as a whole. Not at all. But the fevered rush to build this 54-mile, race track-shaped dream machine has on many occasions conjured up that old saying about war, that truth is its first casualty.

IT’S EASY TO FORGET. AMID THE ENDLESS chatter about new jobs and economic benefits, that the collideristas will not be in the business of designing a new VCR or state-of-the-art TV. The collider is a basic research project, a romantic search for knowledge in its own right, and a powerful instrument that will probe the fundamental structure of the universe. It’s an experiment not unlike dissecting a frog, but on an infinitely grander and more sophisticated scale. By delving into the structure of the atom, by smashing protons together like oncoming trains traveling near the speed of light, the 2, 000 scientists involved in the experiment hope to learn more about the origin of matter and the fundamental forces of the universe. An important objective will be the measurement of the “Higgs field, ” from which it is believed will come an understanding of how matter came into being.

The collider is often compared to space travel in reverse. It is the Hubble telescope aimed not at distant stars but at tiny subatomic particles that could explain why those stars came into existence in the first place. What is learned in Waxahachie, it is hoped, will help mankind take another small but glorious step toward the most elusive answer of all: a grand theory that could explain the universe itself. As one collider supporter put it. the SSC “may hold the key to the resolution of problems man has wrestled with for millenniums…: What are the fundamental constituents of matter, the basic building blocks of the universe we inhabit, and how do they behave?”

Atom smashers have been built before. But to uncover the universe’s closely held secrets requires extraordinary outputs of energy. So with each new machine, and a corresponding increase in energy, physicists are able in miniature to travel even farther back in time, to replicate the moments some 15 billion years ago when everything came into being in the primordial Big Bang. The collider will recreate conditions that are thought to have existed within a few quadril-lionths of a second after the universe began and will be 20 times more powerful than the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory’s atom smasher, currently the most powerful in the world. “The man on the street thinks all matter is made by God in the moment of Creation, ” Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia is said to have remarked. “High-energy physicists like us are repeating over and over again the miracle of Creation. “

Yet in the craze to build it, the Superconducting Super Collider has taken on meaning well beyond its noble scientific mission. It has become a powerful symbol for a nation that has lost its luster in the competitive, high-technology global market. “There’s a fear that if we fail to go through with this project that we have given up our last best hope to be number one in the high-dollar field of high-tech, ” says former congressional aide Louise Hilsen, who has worked on the issue extensively. Some go even further. It is a “monument to science, from this generation to the next. ” in the words of SSC lab director Roy Schwitters. It is a challenge to a great nation, a test of its ability to think big and dream even bigger: the Grand Coulee Dam of its day. “The question is can we do it anymore, ” says Schwitters of these megaprojects. “If we cannot do it, we are a lesser country than we used to be. “

“Without the Super Collider, we stand a chance to lose our edge in science and technology in the world, ” says N. B. “Buck” Jordan of the Waxahachie Chamber of Commerce. Says Joe Barton, “What I saw in this project was that ability to expand human knowledge in a way that would create tremendous potential commercial spinoff capabilities that would create jobs and opportunities and keep America in the forefront of growth in the 21st century. “

Granted, commercial applications are expected from the high-tech gadgetry needed to make the machine tick. Other colliders have led to such advances. According to a 1988 Congressional Budget Office study, computer software developed for particle detectors was used to develop CAT scanning machines. Integrated circuit manufacturing is rooted deeply in particle physics experimentation. And collider supporters say the development of thousands of superconducting magnets for the SSC could lead to new commercial applications for this technology, such as power storage and magnetic levita-tion trains. It is these magnets, some 50 feet long and bathed in liquid helium to hold their temperature to about minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit, that will guide the protons around the 54-mile collider course.

However, many experts say the collider’s commercial applications have been overstated-perhaps for the benefit of politicians and a public that might be reluctant to support an otherwise esoteric endeavor. After all, the collider’s principal objective, the search for knowledge, has very little to do with economic return. The collider will of course pump millions of dollars into the industry, thus speeding its growth. In fact, the collider’s most immediate benefit to the industry is not the development of new technology but a massive consumption of parts and materials. Sheldon Grodsky, an analyst who tracks the superconducting industry, argues as do numerous other experts that “there are going to be major advances in the next decades in the field of superconductivity whether this project goes forward or not. “

At the same time, the collider could likely appropriate funds from other projects with more immediate economic return. Energy Secretary James Watkins recently conceded that the SSC, along with the department’s waste cleanup program, is growing so rapidly that other programs, such as energy research, are likely to be shortchanged. As Robert Park, director of the American Physical Society’s Washington office, says of collider funding, “It’s got to come from somewhere, and science is the most logical place. “

Both presidents Bush and Reagan supported the SSC on the condition it be built with new money and not steal funds from other science projects; they had good reason for this policy, since commercial applications are seldom rooted in a single project. It is risky to fund one project so extensively at the expense of others. Ironically, diverting funds for the collider could undermine the kind of research that led to the SSC’s magnet technology in the first place, says Princeton University professor and Nobel laureate Philip Anderson, who is working on a book on the history of superconductivity. “I’m all for looking for knowledge, “says Anderson. “But to suggest that it has applicability to everyday life is dishonest. “

Notes Schwitters: “It seems to me the most important thing behind the SSC is the fundamental scientific faith that we will uncover scientific information that will give us a deeper understanding of things. The ideas are going to pay off in a 100-year time frame, not a five-year time frame. “

The Washington-based Industrial Research Institute, an association of big-name corporations (Xerox, IBM, Mobil Oil, etc. ) that promotes industrial research, asked its members in 1989 to rank, in order of priority, five major research and development projects. The SSC was ranked last behind the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Space Station, the Hypersonic Plane, and the Human Genome project. Among the comments related to the SSC’s commercial potential was that it was “way, way out and hard to see” and that “information obtained has almost no commercial value. ” A 1986 congressional report by the Office of Technology Assessment concluded that the “principal benefit of research, especially basic research, is new and often unexpected knowledge, which cannot be assigned a direct economic value. “

“There’s been an awful lot of hype concerning the spinoffs, ” says Park. “Whenever you see the word ’spinoff’ connected to a project, your alarm bells should go off. There no doubt will be some spinoffs from it, but it’s not going to get $8 billion worth. “

While Schwitters argues that the collider will train a class of scientists and professionals in the building of a technologically complex project, Arno Penzias, vice president of research at AT&T Bell Laboratories, warns that the collider could “direct many of the nation’s finest young minds to this particular discipline and divert them from other fields of basic science… in building the Super Collider our nation will be constructing yet another temple to the one-dimensional hierarchy of prestige that equates the most atomistic science with the most blessed. “

“To me the question is not whether society can afford any given amount of money, ” says Penzias. “For scientists the question to be answered is what contribution of resources should the rest of science be asked to make to permit high-energy physics to build and operate the Superconducting Super Collider?”

FOR TEXAS, RECENTLY HUMBLED BY economic limitations, the collider has become nothing short of a symbol of the future: the New Texas where we will never again mortgage our future to oil. “Right now, Texas is technologically almost a Third World nation in that its economy is based on raw material, ” says Fred Bucy, the former Texas Instruments chief. “This is a symbol of how Texas is changing… a symbol to the world that we want to be at the forefront in research and technology equal to any state in the nation. “

The promised economic advantages of the SSC have been repeated so often they have become a mantra of sorts: thousands of permanent jobs, new housing starts, research dollars for universities, and an exponential increase in sales for local businessmen. The SSC has already signed on local contractors (among them Haws & Tingle and Sedalco Inc. ), tightened the Waxahachie rental market, and, according to a North Texas Commission report, contributed $60 million directly to the area’s business activity. The SSC lab currently employs 1, 050 people at a sprawling industrial park in South Dallas.

“I think in addition to bringing in jobs for the Dallas area and South Dallas, it will have the same impact in that part of the city as when Texas Instruments moved into Richardson in the late 1950s, ” says Bucy. “I think it’s one more brick in the new structure we’re trying to build. “

But is the collider anything more than a glorified public works program? What the collider is expected to bring North Texas in terms of new industries, high-tech start-ups, and other benefits is a matter of heated debate. Despite initial speculation that real estate prices would climb in Ellis County, “For Sale” signs are as plentiful as in any depressed Texas county. Richard Rhodes, Ellis County chief appraiser, says, “The market has neither heated up nor cooled down because of this thing. ” So far not a single company has relocated in Ellis County because of the collider.

It’s still too early, of course, to expect an avalanche of R&D. Buck Jordan of the Waxahachie Chamber of Commerce, much like Energy Secretary W. Henson Moore, predicts that once Congress appropriates the big bucks, demonstrating long-term commitment, economic development will follow. He says he’s been talking with at least two companies interested in relocating. “I can truthfully say that I’m still excited about this project, ” says Jordan, “It puts us in a totally different environment, in that we’re going to become the attention of the world. It’s really a high-tech oasis. “

But if recent history is any guide, the Superconducting Super Collider could be not a high-tech oasis but a mirage. When it was completed in 1972, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Bata-via, Illinois, was also expected to attract related high-tech development. “As I told many people from Texas, probably the best thing it did for Batavia is it proved a blessing to contain growth, ” says Batavia’s mayor. Jeffery Schielke. “It’s a great neighbor. It has never smoked, smelled, polluted, or played loud music. If I had a referendum in my town tomorrow, everybody votes on whether Fermilab goes or stays, the referendum would pass 9 to 1. “

However, Schielke says, “We planned for this great economic boom that never happened. ” Schielke says that 1, 350 acres next to Fermilab were zoned for commercial and industrial development. Today, half of this land has been developed for an industrial park that includes a hot tub manufacturer, paint factory, and corrugated box producer. “I cannot point to one industry located out there because of Fermilab. The high-tech has yet to appear, “

As even many strong supporters of the Super Collider concede, there is a dearth of strong evidence to predict the collider’s economic impact. “It isn’t as if there have been 500 or 600 accelerators built, ” says Dean Vanderbilt, former Dallas City Council member and now executive vice president of the North Texas Commission. “There isn’t a clear, reliable way to see how this thing will impact the area where it is placed. ” On the other hand, Don Hicks, professor of political economy at the University of Texas at Dallas, argues that the Dallas/ Fort Worth area’s strong industrial base will serve as a magnet for SSC-related operations. Further, he says the technological sophistication of the project will encourage participating companies to establish local shops, even though the project’s political momentum has been built by placing high-dollar contracts in congressional districts outside of Texas.

Many Texas leaders, eager to pull the state out of the bust, were desperate for an economic bonanza. So, to sweeten its bid to the Department of Energy, Texas pledged almost a billion dollars in bond money for the project, with $500 million approved by voters in a 1987 referendum. Spending and issuing authority for the money rests with the Texas National Research Laboratory Commission (TNRLC), which has been controlled in part over the years by such luminaries as Bucy (the current chairman), Tom Luce, and Morton Meyerson.

But, says Texas A&M’s Lonnie Jones, who co-authored a study for the TNRLC on the colliders socioeconomic impact, “I have to seriously doubt that we’ll ever get our money back. There is no way that we can generate enough in jobs to retire these bonds. “

Jones estimates, taking into account related economic development and inflation, that during the construction phase of the project, the SSC will generate $17 million in tax revenue, or 21 percent of the $80 million needed each year to retire the billion-dollar debt. During the operation phase, he says, the SSC will generate $14. 5 million in revenue, or roughly 18 percent of the total debt service. “Even if we had a different tax structure, you still couldn’t tax heavily enough to pay back $80 million. ” says Jones. “It should be understood by the people of Texas what we’re doing here. It’s going to be money out of some people’s pockets to benefit other people making money. “

Some economists say that analyzing the SSC based on the loss in tax revenue fails to take into account its psychic boost and value as an image builder for the state, as well as the long-term benefits of establishing the state’s first such national laboratory. “If the state was considering itself as an investor, we would not have a positive return on this project, ” says Mickey Wright, an economist with the state comptroller’s office. “In my opinion, that’s a very narrow way to look at it, [saying it’s] a public investment for private gain. The state itself is losing money on it, but the general welfare of the state is improved. “

Yet the SSC, at least in a slick pamphlet sponsored by the TNRLC, was sold this way: “Texas will gain jobs, income, and tax revenue as a result of the SSC. ” The TNRLC’s Edward Bingler notes that reliable figures assessing the public sector impact do not exist. He says the recognized authority on such matters is the comptroller’s office.

A report prepared for the TNRLC by Austin consultant Milton L. Holloway-and recognized by the comptroller’s office as authoritative-generally confirms Jones’s results. Furthermore, Holloway points out that the project is likely to produce less tax revenue if the magnets are built out of state. And most insiders say that the magnets will probably be built in Louisiana, the home state of an influential committee chairman. Holloway concedes that Texas university research programs related to the SSC could bring in more tax dollars not included in his numbers. But Jones says that under the most optimistic predictions the SSC would be able to generate no more than 50 percent of the tax revenue needed to retire the debt, which has some experts wondering if the billion dollars could not have been used more profitably by the private sector.

Some Ellis County officials are already discovering some hard realities. By all accounts, main street businesses will profit and sales tax revenues will increase because of the SSC. Waxahachie, the county seat, is already bustling with restaurant-catered parties and new customers scoping out the sights on the historic courthouse square. But at the same time, land being bought for the SSC is being removed from the property tax rolls. “Schools are going to be impacted tremendously and where are they going to pick it up from?” says Jordan. “It’s alarming, “

David Montgomery, Waxahachie school superintendent, says his district has lost $354, 000 in tax revenue that will be counted against next year’s school budget. The loss is relatively small compared to the district’s $19 million budget. But Montgomery says that the loss will have to be made up somewhere, and that could mean an increase in property taxes. Montgomery estimates that to make up for the shortfall, a resident owning a $100, 000 home would have to pay between $40 and $50 in additional taxes.

“My concern is eventually the SSC will be a positive thing for the community but until that time comes our taxpayers will bear the burden for the loss of revenue, ” says Montgomery. “They [the TNRLC] seem to always want to study it, but they have not come across with the concrete, This is what we’re going to do and we want to help you. ’ We’re getting a lot of runaround. “

So far, the issue of who will pay for the loss of tax base appears snagged in a bureaucratic tangle. According to Cipriano, the DOE official, the state has agreed to provide up to $125 million for mitigation purposes, which would offset the erosion of tax base. However, the TNLRC’s Bingler says that no specific dollar amount has been discussed or agreed upon. “I would like to see more specifics, “Bingler says. “I’m convinced that there would be a plan put in place to address impacts. The way I look at it is those are issues that will be addressed by the Department of Energy and us in an orderly way. And until they are it would serve no useful good for me to comment on them. “

WHAT IS BEYOND DISPUTE, HOWEVER, is that the state’s authorization of the billion dollars has been crucial in moving the project forward in its initial and most vulnerable stage. When federal budget cutters last year in effect slashed $75 million from the SSC’s appropriation, the TNRLC wasted little time in matching much of this amount; the $60 million additional allocation helped keep the collider from falling behind schedule and, more importantly, boosted the project’s momentum in Washington at a time when other costly projects were facing stiff opposition.

The money has come in handy in other ways, too. Texas money is providing the feds with land and subsurface rights gratis and is subsidizing $175 million in power-related services. (Dallas, Tarrant, and Ellis counties are expected to contribute at least $36 million to the cost of land purchase. ) In fact, Texas Utilities stands to make as much as $35 million a year in revenue from the collider, which will make it one of TU’s biggest customers. “In the course of a year, the col-lider would consume the same amount of energy as a city of 150, 000, ” says Jimmy Cox, an SSC project coordinator for TU Electric. As no one can deny, TU stands to pocket a profit on the collider. “If I am a residential customer am I going to benefit from the Super Collider?” asks TU spokesman Dick Ramsey. “No… Your residential customers should not be subsidized by the SSC, and conversely, your residential customers should not have to subsidize the other commercial interests. “

The way the TNRLC has used the Texas money goes to the heart of how this project is being sold in D. C. While the TNRLC coughed up the $60 million quickly, the money to offset the loss of school tax base has been slow in coming. Does this apparent contradiction reflect the collideristas’ priorities? The TNRLC recently awarded some $10 million in research and development grants. Much of this money flowed to universities out of state to “fund scientific experiments related to the design and operation of the SSC’s massive particle detectors which will be used to record the speeds, directions, and types of particles resulting from high-energy proton collisions. ” The grants were no doubt an important part of advancing research on the project.

But it is through the awarding of such grants and contracts that the collideristas build support and momentum for this project. It is by far the oldest trick in the pork barreler’s book: By spreading the contracts around like bark mulch, they can easily hook influential committee chairmen into the project. Collider lobbyists present congressmen detailed lists of contracts and grants that will go to their states. According to a TNRLC press statement, a grant for $250, 000 was awarded by the TNRLC to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. While an aide denies any connection, it’s no secret that the University of Alabama is near and dear to the heart of Alabama Rep. Tom Bevill, who exercises considerable control over a committee crucial to the collideristas.

Who will benefit most from this project? Is it really any more than a contractor’s dream? And will it really help Texas build a new image? Much of the national press surrounding the project has focused on the lucrative contract angle and the corresponding clout of the Texas delegation. What is more, the SSC, like any basic research program, could be a stunning flop that finds nothing of great value but instead consumes oceans of tax dollars. Picture this headline in the nation’s tabloid papers: Texas Boondoggle Bombs.

In fact, the SSC has yet to test a full-scale industrial prototype magnet, a crucial step if the project is to succeed. And it is one thing to test a prototype and yet another to successfully mass-produce the collider’s 10, 000 magnets. One redesign in magnets has already caused an increase in the collider’s price tag and additional slip-ups in this area could sink the project.

A 1991 General Accounting Office report found that the magnet development schedule was dangerously compressed, and recommended that Congress “limit the risk to the federal government” by making funding for tunnel construction contingent on a magnet string-test. A February 25, 1991, letter from Ray Stefanski, an SSC lab official, raises cost questions about an underground detector hall. Stefanski suggests that construction of the hall to house the high-tech detector could be a task “at least as difficult as building the collider itself. “

“The base of the hall will be located in Eagleford shale, ” writes Stefanski. “The shale must be kept dry after excavation. Failure to keep the shale dry may lead to large cost overruns and schedule delays. It’s even conceivable that getting water down to the shale could curtail construction. ” The 1991 GAO report also raised questions about the shale, concluding that while it “makes up only 12 percent of the SSC’s tunnel, the formation poses risks because of the shale’s high shrink-swell potential, causing possible unstable geologic conditions. ” Stable geology, of course, has long been considered crucial to the project’s success.

DOE project director Joe Cipriano says he has been advised by project engineers that placing the detector in and tunneling through the shale should not cause significant problems. “They have advised us that it is just a moderate risk to build it [the detector] in the shale, if that’s what we want to do, ” he says. “We can move it [to another rock formation] if it becomes too difficult. ” But such uncertainty is bound to provide fuel to the project’s congressional skeptics, who are sure to keep sharpening their knives and eyeing the SSC budget.

The irony of the collider project is that its bigness may be the very thing that kills it, since it is an increasingly obvious target for budget cutters. Still, few political insiders are betting against the SSC. In support of the collider, Ronald Reagan once recalled that quarterback Ken Stabler’s interpretation of Jack London’s personal credo, meant “throw deep. ” So far, it seems that the collideristas have thrown very deep indeed.