In Indiana, A U.S. Superhighway May Hit The Skids

Jun 20, 2012
Originally published on June 21, 2012 11:18 am

The story of the so-called NAFTA Superhighway is long and winding — and without a new influx of funds, the end of the road may still be a long way off.

When complete, Interstate 69 would pass through eight states and provide a direct route through the Midwest between Canada and Mexico.

Most of the states along the route are upgrading existing roads to interstate standards. Indiana, in contrast, must build almost 100 miles of entirely new road for its portion of the project.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has been fast-tracking construction. But when he leaves office in January, the road will be less than half-finished — and money for the project is running out.

Years In The Making

As he drives his big silver Cadillac past earthmovers, bulldozers and mountains of dirt, Tom Baumert points out a recently completed overpass, beaming like a proud father.

Baumert lives in Washington, Ind., a railroad town in the southwestern part of the state. Washington flourished in the 19th century, when the country depended on trains to move goods and people, but languished as train travel waned and the modern highway system left it behind.

This is where the idea for I-69 developed more than two decades ago, and where some of the freeway's biggest supporters live.

But the project collected dust for years. Four different governors studied the effort, but none committed funds to begin construction.

That is, until Daniels took office in 2005. "I-69 was clearly one of the promises that had been made, or the commitments the state had, that there was no prospect of paying for," he says.

One year after taking office, Daniels leased the state's toll road to a foreign consortium for 75 years in exchange for a payment of $3.85 billion. He then pledged $700 million toward I-69, making its completion a stated priority.

Today, the first part of the interstate in Indiana is already open. By the end of this year, two-thirds of the road will either be complete or under construction.

"There is no other state breaking records 10 years in a row for investment in new public assets," Daniels says of Indiana's progress.

A Question Of Priorities

But the fate of the interstate is now in doubt. There's currently enough money to build the road from Evansville, on the Indiana-Kentucky border, north to Bloomington.

But that leaves a big gap — approximately 40 miles — between Bloomington and where I-69 picks up again near Indianapolis.

Daniels leaves office in January. By then, toll road money helping to fund the project will be nearly gone, and dwindling gas tax revenues and federal support won't be able to cover all of the state's transportation priorities.

Daniels says his successor will have to find the money to complete the project, but I-69 opponents say it's just not worth it. I-69 alone could cost an additional $2 billion, on top of the $1 billion the state has already committed.

"I-69 is really the last thing you should be doing," says Brian Garvey, part of a grass-roots group advocating against the project's completion.

Garvey wonders why the governor is pumping so much money into the interstate when the state can't afford to keep up existing roads.

"Creating a whole new project ... essentially will be unsustainable," Garvey says. "What exists now is unsustainable."

Opponents are also concerned about the project's impact on Indiana farmland.

The End Of The Line?

But back in the small town of Washington, Baumert hopes his decades-old dream will soon come to life.

"I used to say that I'm going to be an old man, sitting in the backseat slobbering all over myself, whenever they drive me on I-69," Baumert says. "But you know, I might actually get to drive my own car ... on this thing yet."

The Republican and Democratic front-runners vying to be Indiana's next governor both express support for completing I-69. But neither has said where the state will find the money — leaving the risk that the legacy of yet another governor could end up stranded on the shoulder.

Copyright 2012 WFIU-FM. To see more, visit http://wfiu.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The long and winding history of the NAFTA Superhighway is still being written. Interstate 69 is planned to pass through eight states and provide the only direct route through the Midwest, from Canada to Mexico. While most of those states are upgrading existing roads to interstate standards, Indiana needs to build nearly 100 miles of new road. Governor Mitch Daniels has been fast-tracking construction, but when he leaves office in January, the road will still be less than half finished.

And as Sara Wittmeyer of member station WFIU reports the money is running out.

SARA WITTMEYER, BYLINE: As he drives his big silver Cadillac past Earth movers, bulldozers, and mountains of dirt, Tom Baumert looks like a proud father.

TOM BAUMERT: This is a recently completed overpass.

WITTMEYER: Baumert lives in Washington, Indiana, in the southwestern part of the state. It's a railroad town that flourished in the 19th century when the country depended on trains to move goods and people, and languished when the highway system left it behind. This is where the idea for Interstate 69 developed more than two decades ago and where some of the biggest road supporters live. The project collected dust until Mitch Daniels was sworn in as the governor in 2005.

GOVERNOR MITCH DANIELS: I-69 was clearly one of the promises that had been made or the commitments the state had that there was no prospect of paying for.

WITTMEYER: A year after taking office, Daniels leased the state's toll road to a foreign consortium for 75 years in exchange for a payment of $3.85 billion. He then pledged $700 million toward I-69, making its completion a stated priority. The first part of the interstate in Indiana is already open, and by the end of the year, two-thirds of the road will either be finished or under construction.

DANIELS: There is no other state breaking records 10 years in a row for investment in new public assets.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIGHWAY TRAFFIC)

WITTMEYER: I'm standing on the shoulder of the state road where I-69 will connect just south of Bloomington. There's enough money to build the interstate from Evansville to here, but that leaves a big gap until I-69 picks back up about 40 miles north of here in Indianapolis.

BRIAN GARVEY: I-69 is really the last thing you should be doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS CLUCKING)

WITTMEYER: A couple miles away, Brian Garvey wakes up to the sounds of goats and chickens and other farm animals. He's part of a grassroots group advocating against completing I-69. Garvey wonders why the governor is pumping so much money into it when the state can't afford to keep up existing roads.

GARVEY: Creating a whole new project that is essentially will be unsustainable.

WITTMEYER: Governor Daniels leaves office in January. By then, the toll road money will be almost gone, and dwindling gas tax revenues and federal support won't be able to cover the costs of all the state's transportation priorities. I-69 alone could cost another $2 billion. That's on top of the $1 billion that's already been committed. Daniels says his successor will have to find the money to complete the project. Back in Washington, Indiana, Tom Baumert hopes his decades-old dream will come to life.

BAUMERT: I used to say that I'm going to be an old man sitting in the backseat slobbering all over myself whenever they drive me on I-69, but, you know, I might actually drive my own car, drive on this thing yet.

WITTMEYER: The Republican and Democratic front-runners for governor both express support for completing I-69 but won't say where the state will find the money, opening the risk of a stalled promise and the legacy of a governor stranded on the shoulder. For NPR News, I'm Sara Wittmeyer in Bloomington, Indiana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.