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First Half of Ind. Highway Ready, But Cash Runs Low

Thu December 13, 2012 - Midwest Edition

CRANE, Ind. (AP) The nation’s longest new highway in the works — a nearly $3 billion interstate to link rural southwestern Indiana with the state’s capital — is now half-built and ready for traffic, but lingering questions of when the project’s remaining miles will open and how they’ll be paid for could cloud its future.

After four years of work, the first 67 mi. of the Interstate 69 extension’s planned 142 mi. opened to cars and trucks Nov. 19 following a ribbon-cutting and a caravan Gov. Mitch Daniels led north along the newly paved stretch, which cost about $900 million.

Despite the questions about how many years it will be before the full Evansville-to-Indianapolis route opens, the highway’s supporters in isolated southwest Indiana are excited and hopeful that even the 67 mi. of four-lane, 70 mph traffic will invigorate the region’s economy.

Washington, Ind., Mayor Joe Wellman, whose city of 12,000 will be served by one I-69 interchange, believes the opening will help spur new development and jobs and give residents a safer journey to Indianapolis than the winding, hilly state roads that have long been their main link to the capital.

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” Wellman said. “Right now, you’ve got a lot of stops and starts — stoplights and small communities you have to go through. There’s just lots of curves and hills.”

But for at least the next two years, cars and trucks driving onto the new highway near Evansville will slow and exit at a rural spot halfway to Indianapolis near the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center about 25 mi. southwest of Bloomington.

From that point, they’ll continue on those familiar state roads with cross traffic and stoplights.

Daniels, whose second term ends in January, will leave office with his successor, Mike Pence, facing the task of completing and paying for the remainder of I-69 to Indianapolis because the funds Indiana tapped to pay for most of the highway’s first half are nearly gone.

The state devoted about $700 million to the I-69 project from the $3.8 billion it collected by leasing the Indiana Toll Road to a private consortium. But that money has already been spent or allocated.

Pence’s spokeswoman, Christy Denault, said the governor-elect is committed to finishing I-69, which he views as the “missing spoke” in the network of highways linking the state’s different regions.

“He’s said multiple times that we need to finish what we’ve started,” Denault said.

Aside from tapping state and federal gas tax funds, she said Pence plans to explore a variety of “innovative financing mechanisms” but has no plans to seek an increase in the state’s fuel tax or to consider tolls to help pay for the highway’s completion.

The Hoosier Environmental Council, which has sued to try to halt work on the highway, warns it will damage sensitive ecosystems and has long questioned whether the project will bring the improved travel times and economic development touted by state officials.

Tim Maloney, the council’s senior policy director, predicts many motorists traveling between Indianapolis and Evansville won’t be using the half-completed highway. He said Interstate 70 and U.S. 41 will remain their favored path, particularly once a Terre Haute bypass under construction is completed.

“That’s still going to be a better through-route than traveling a half-built I-69 to Crane or to Bloomington and then using State Road 37 as it is today,” he said. “That will have no advantages over the 70-41 route.”

State officials hope to open by late 2014 a 27-mi. stretch of I-69 now under construction that will extend to State Road 37 at Bloomington — a segment slated to cost $600 million.

The high cost of that relatively short segment stems from the fact that it will cut across a rugged, heavily wooded area dotted with a geological honeycomb of caves, springs and underground rivers.

Maloney worries sediment from construction — and road salt, auto oil and spills along the completed segment — could cause serious environmental harm in that area.

In rural Greene County, the highway’s next stretch has already taken a bite out of about a third of the 47-acre farmstead where Indianapolis residents Bill and Jan Boyd had planned to eventually retire.

That land, which Jan’s maternal grandparents purchased in 1919, boasts their old farmhouse, a pasture filled with beef cattle and a weathered smokehouse that’s one of the property’s numerous rustic outbuildings.

The Boyds’ land had overlooked a wooded hill abutting a wetland. But in late March, after the couple lost an eminent domain challenge to Indiana’s claim to their land, a state contractor moved through and cut a swath of old trees to clear the way for earth-moving equipment.

Jan Boyd, who has fond childhood memories of exploring the woods and nearby springs and spooky nighttime trips to the home’s old outhouse, said her family is heartbroken by the highway’s impact on their land.

She said the ravines and woods her five grandchildren love to explore will within two years be permanently marred by the noise, smell and lights of an interstate highway.

“After our family, this was the most important thing to us in our lives. We were going to retire here. How do you live with a highway 200 feet from your front door?” she asked. “There’s going to be an interstate with hundreds or thousands of cars and trucks running through here day and night, 24 hours a day.”

When the segment to Bloomington is complete, I-69 will span 94 mi., a stretch considered the longest portion of highway built in the United States in decades over land never before paved.

But when the highway’s remaining 48 mi. to Indianapolis will open remains in question, along with the project’s final price tag.

An environmental impact released in October shows that a 21-mi. segment that would run from Bloomington to Martinsville could cost between $500 million and $546 million — $100 million more than earlier estimates.

Preliminary cost estimates for the project’s final portion, 27 mi. that will extend the rest of the way to Interstate 465 on Indianapolis’ south side, range from $700 million to $775 million.

Altogether, that would place the highway’s cost at up to $2.8 billion.

In the years ahead, I-69 will more than likely have to compete with Indiana’s many urgent road- and bridge-repair projects for the shrinking pot of gas tax funds available for infrastructure upgrades.

Indiana’s tax on every gallon of gas purchased in the state has been 18 cents a gallon since 2003. But since fiscal year 2004, the revenue collected by that tax has fallen nearly 7 percent, to about $543 million, according to state records.

Federal gas tax revenue that also help fund state highway projects also is declining as cars have become more fuel-efficient, said Joung Lee, associate director of finance and business development at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

The federal fuel tax has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, and the purchase power of the revenue it generates has fallen about one third in the two decades since, he said.

“Certainly you get a lot less now for that same steel and concrete, across the board,” Lee said.

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