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I-69: Corridor of the Future

Fri January 04, 2013 - Midwest Edition
Lori Lovely

In the 1970s, a group dreamt of a “Southwest Indiana Highway” connecting Evansville to Bloomington, but it wasn’t until 1991 when Congress proposed a “New National Highway System” that the dream took shape as part of a new Interstate 69 corridor. Designated as one of six “Corridors of the Future,” I-69 will eventually extend from Mexico to Canada, making it the primary north-south route in the United States.

The purpose of the Corridors of the Future program is to develop innovative national and regional approaches to reduce congestion and improve the efficiency of freight delivery, according to the Indiana Department of Transportation. As designated by Congress, the purpose of the National I-69 project is not simply to link two locations on the U.S. borders (Laredo, Texas, and Port Huron, Mich.), it is to link major commercial and population centers in eight states with one another, as well as with trading partners in Canada and Mexico. One of the core goals is to improve international as well as interstate trade.

The I-69 Evansville-to-Indianapolis Project is only a small portion of the entire I-69 project. Congress considered it part of a national high-priority transportation corridor, designated as Corridor 18 in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, and specifically directed that this corridor connect Evansville and Indianapolis because there is no existing Interstate highway that provides this connection. INDOT has considered an improved highway between these two cities since the 1940s, but hadn’t formulated a plan.

In addition to completing the National I-69 project, local benefits include strengthening the transportation network and supporting economic development in southwest Indiana.

Paying for Progress

The 142-mi. (228.5 km) I-69 corridor from Evansville to Indianapolis was divided into six independent sections. Sixty-five mi. (104.6 km) of Sections 1, 2 and 3 are currently under construction and scheduled to open by the end of 2012. Section 4, a 27-mi. (43.5 km) stretch between Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center and the existing limited-access S.R. 37 south of Bloomington, has been let to bid in anticipation of completion by the end of 2014.

With an overall price tag of $1.73 to $1.83 billion, funding has been complicated on this segmented project. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels committed some funds from the lease of the Indiana toll road. Other sources of funding include $700 million from the Major Moves Construction Program earmarked for the section from Evansville to just north of Crane. For portions of Sections 1 and 4 not covered by Major Moves, traditional state and federal funds are being used.

As INDOT continues to seek innovative funding sources in order to complete Sections 5 and 6 between Bloomington and Indianapolis, work goes on. Construction of Section 1 is complete and work on Sections 2 and 3 is underway. These first three sections, encompassing 65 mi. (104.6 km) from Evansville to the U.S. 231 interchange, will cost approximately $600 million. When they open late in 2012, these sections will represent the largest contiguous new terrain interstate construction project completed in the United States in decades.

The fourth section, 27 mi. (43.5 km) from the interchange to Ind. 37 south of Bloomington, also will cost $600 million. The reason this section is more expensive per mi. is due to differences in terrain and geology. The route goes from relatively flat terrain to hilly karst areas in Greene and Monroe counties. Three of six contracts for this portion have been let. The final three are expected to be awarded by the end of 2012.

Planning is proceeding for Section 5 through Bloomington to south of Martinsville. An environmental impact statement will be sent to the Federal Highway Administration by the end of the second quarter of 2013. The state must show how the work will be paid for before permission will be granted. Although critics are skeptical of funding, Cher Elliot, INDOT media relations director, expects initial contracts to be awarded by the end of 2013. The project is expected to be completed in 2014.

Work Detail

Construction was accelerated during the recession to take advantage of competitive bidding. With companies eager for work, rivalry for jobs has been fierce. “We’ve seen bids come in roughly 22 percent below estimates,” Will Wingfield, INDOT’s director of media relations, said.

Bidding wasn’t the only aspect that was accelerated. Working “as much as possible, seven days a week, as needed,” crews took advantage of the 2012 drought to get a lot of paving done. “It’s allowed the contractors up and down the corridor to work each and every day,” said Elliot. “We were probably the only industry to capitalize on the drought.” Due to the record drought, she said, everyone involved with the project “seems very positive that everything will continue and make it through on these time lines.”

Elliot said that the pavement industry bid in direct competition — asphalt and concrete — because the specifications didn’t stipulate pavement type. “All pavements are designed to performance standards,” she said. Total project mainline pavement is approximately 10 mi. (16 km) of asphalt and 48 mi. (77 km) of concrete. More than 114,061 cu. yds. (87,205.9 cu m) of structural concrete will be used just in Sections 1-3.

In addition to paving materials, more than 47 million lbs. (21.3 m kg) of reinforcing steel will be used to build pre-cast concrete bridges in Sections 1-3. If laid end-to-end, the number of bridge beams being used would circle the 2.5-mi. (4.02 km) Indianapolis Motor Speedway track more than nine times.

The Pigeon Creek, Patoka River and White River bridges are all concrete structures with environmentally friendly, self-contained drainage networks. Despite the drought, Elliot said one challenge the crews faced was high river levels.

In addition to the usual bulldozers and front-end loaders, 13 cranes were needed for construction of the 4,400 ft.-long (1341.1 m) Patoka Refuge Bridge, which spans the entire refuge and its wetland areas. Because it spans the entire flood plain, the bridge reduces environmental impact.

In late 1999, a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Study was initiated for the Evansville-to-Indianapolis portion of I-69. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified one threatened and one endangered species that could potentially be adversely affected by the project: the federally endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalist) and the federally threated bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

After further study, the USFWS issued an opinion that the alternative route proposed is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the bald eagle or the Indiana bat and is not likely to destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitat. The Indiana Karst Memorandum of Understanding provides for mitigation of impacts to karst features.

Freeway of the Future

It’s believed that the new I-69 corridor will reduce highway crashes as well as transportation costs. For example, over a 20-year period, the construction of I-69 is estimated to result in 40,000 fewer serious injuries from highway crashes.

As if that and the prospect of more efficient freight transportation weren’t enough to convince area residents of the benefits of the project, before survey work began, INDOT held 237 “Kitchen Table Meetings” with property owners between Crane and Bloomington to provide information about timelines, land acquisition, planned road improvements and what to expect during upcoming survey and field work.

Property owners were asked to map out septic systems, wells, fences and drainage features to avoid impacts. The program has been recognized by both The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the Institute for Transportation Engineers. “The purpose of the kitchen table meetings was to improve communication with property owners and pro-actively address their concerns,” said INDOT Commissioner Michael B. Cline. “Property owner feedback regarding this program has been very positive,” he added.

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