WHILE YOU MIGHT STILL FIND a few tattered bumperstickers claiming otherwise, Waxahachie is no longer “Collider Country.” This past winter, the sad saga of the superconducting supercollider—a high-tech contraption designed to plumb the mysteries of matter and energy and explore the very origins of the universe—closed another chapter when someone from the highway department finally took down the sign north of town that pointed the way to the 500,000-square-foot warehouse that was once collider headquarters. But even though the U.S. House first voted to cut off funding for the collider four years ago this month, it has taken the project a long time to die, and its death throes have been more costly in human and economic terms than anyone expected. A recent finger-wagging message on the marquee of Waxahachie’s Northside Church of Christ seemed to sum up the situation: “No man can fight God and win.”
With a 54-mile underground oval tunnel and technology designed to smash protons into primal smithereens, the collider was to have been one of the largest public works projects in American history and the grandest scientific effort since the space program was launched. And it promised to send Waxahachie, a serene, well-preserved town blessed with Victorian houses and a wholesome ambience, hurtling into the future. Instead, the collider was halted with little more than 15 miles of underground tunnel dug out beneath the topsoil of Ellis County, and it became a useless ruin. The unfinished project cost U.S. taxpayers more than $2 billion and the State of Texas nearly half a billion. So far, the state has recouped less than half of its losses. But as for Waxahachie and the tiny towns that fell within the collider’s path, the ultimate cost is still to be determined. If most people in the area seem to have reached a stage of fatalistic acceptance of what happened—“Now everybody knows where Waxahachie, Texas, is,” one local collider booster told me—there’s no doubt that the project left broken dreams and dislocated lives in its wake. “We’ve got a big hole in the ground and roads that don’t lead anywhere,” said another longtime resident. “It still pains your heart to think of what might have been.”
When I visited Waxahachie this past February to assess the damage, one of my first stops was the chamber of commerce, where N. B. “Buck” Jordan, once the collider’s biggest supporter, still presides. “Sure, losing the collider hurt—it was the chance of a lifetime,” said Jordan, who is a member of the Texas National Research Laboratory Commission (TNRLC), which is overseeing the disposal of the state’s share of collider property. I first met Jordan in 1988, just after corks were popped to celebrate the project’s approval, and he impressed me as one of the most upbeat people I’d ever met. Back then the collider was seen as a welcome boost to an economy reeling from busts in real estate, oil, banking, and agriculture. Texans who didn’t know a quark from a quirk embraced the collider as their own, even dubbing it the Armadillotron, as if it were some sort of mascot. Nowadays, though, Jordan’s voice turns wistful when the collider comes up. “I ought to save all this stuff to start a museum,” he told me—and indeed, his office is full of souvenirs, including a framed copy of the headline from the Waxahachie Daily Light announcing the collider’s arrival: It’s Here. He has a cross section of the superconducting magnet whose aperture proved too narrow—a miscalculation that threatened to cost the project another $1 billion and finally helped sink it. He also has chunks of Austin chalk, the diggable layer of soft rock under Ellis County that lured the collider’s builders. “I still tell people who call that we’ve got lots of that Austin chalk,” Jordan said.
It’s not that there’s been a fire sale on Waxahachie real estate; nor has there been an exodus of people or businesses other than those connected with the collider. “We didn’t get too carried away and overbuild,” Jordan insisted. The town did lose a few new companies that had moved in, including a cryogenics company (the collider’s magnets depended on supercooling technology), but a number of new companies have recently arrived, and several existing ones, including glass-products maker Ball-Foster and Owens-Corning Fiberglas, have undertaken expansions. “In the last three or four years, we’ve added forty-three million dollars to our tax rolls and about a thousand jobs,” he said. “We recognized that we had to build a life after the collider.”
Jordan’s responsibility these days is to help the state unload leftover collider equipment and the enormous warehouse that served as the project’s headquarters. “We still have tons of stuff to get rid of,” he said. “Most of it is specialized, and it’s not going to fit in just anybody’s garage.” Take the collider’s state-of-the-art linear accelerator, or linac, a sophisticated piece of equipment used to generate proton beams. As part of the split of collider assets between Texas and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the state received the linac, which the General Services Commission then advertised for sale on the Internet and in science journals around the world. Although it was once valued at $22 million, the highest bid for the linac was for less than $3 million.
The state may do a little better on the nearly 16,000 acres of land associated with the collider that it owns, although by some accounts it will be lucky to recoup 35 cents on the dollar. And it may be years before all the land issues are resolved. To make way for the project six years ago, the state had to oust from their homes a number of people whose families had farmed the same parcels for generations. Folks who had survived drought, tornadoes, and a dying way of life—the kind of hardy country people that inspired Waxahachie native Robert Benton’s nostalgic film Places in the Heart —wound up losing their land to a futuristic project they never understood.