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Interstate 69 to Blaze New Trail of Economic Growth

Mon March 28, 2005 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund



Blazing new trails has always been part of America. In the 21st century, you still have to chart the route, cross rivers and mountains, and get enough funding to do the job.

Interstate 69 (I-69) is being discussed, studied, and mapped as a route to new wealth, like the Oregon Trail of old.

I-69 is a 1,850-mi.-long high-priority “corridor of national significance” which would carry goods between Mexico and Canada, stimulate economic growth in the eight states, which it crosses (as well as in other states) and use armies of construction equipment to build.

Sometimes called the “NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) Highway,” it would facilitate international trade, a top goal of the Bush Administration.

At the same time, states like Texas would develop it as a true intermodal highway of the new century. I-69 would connect with railroads, commuter lines, ports, industrial centers and other infrastructure, providing a focal point for economic development, including petroleum, electric and other utility plants. In transporting international commodities, it would probably include a separate lane for trucks in some places.

The I-69 corridor would extend from the Texas/Mexico border to Port Huron, MI, ribboning northeastward through Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan.

Mostly two lanes in each direction, this multi-billion-dollar project would utilize at least three major new bridges — the Great Mississippi River Bridge between Arkansas and Mississippi, a bridge spanning the Ohio River between Henderson, KY and Evansville, IN, and the Port Huron Bridge between Port Huron, MI, and Ontario, Canada.

Bush Has Backed

Though it’s in the initial environmental study stage (see sidebar), the new transcontinental I-69 corridor has a lot going for it.

Rep. Tom DeLay, R-TX, majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, told an Alliance for I-69 Texas luncheon in August, 2002, “Solving the north-south shortcoming in highway infrastructure is a clear national priority. I-69 is destined to become the spine of the Americas.” The next month, an executive order from President Bush named I-69 Texas as one of seven transportation construction projects, which were to receive a special accelerated environmental review.

(Bush called for a cabinet-level task force to cut away inefficient review procedures.)

How It Grew

Interest in I-69 has grown over the past 15 years.

In the 1991 six-year Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act (ISTEA), Congress designated Corridor 18 from Indianapolis, IN to Memphis, TN, Corridor 20 from Texarkana, AR, to Laredo, TX, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley corridor as one of the “high priority” corridors of national significance.

Congress then extended Corridor 18 from Memphis to Houston, TX, via Shreveport, LA, in 1993 and merged it with Corridor 20 in 1995. A feasibility study at this time estimated that a new interstate highway on this route would increase the nation’s productivity by $2.2 billion over 30 years and would return $1.39 in benefits for each dollar invested.

The TEA-21 (Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century) highway bill in 1998 then added a pre-existing 360-mi.-long I-69 section, from Indianapolis to Port Huron, to the route and extended the I-69 designation to the entire corridor all the way through Texas. Congress also created dedicated funding categories for I-69 corridor planning and development and for a related infrastructure program along the border with Mexico.

The I-69 project really started to roll now. An environmental study in 1999-2000 reviewed the benefits of a border-to-border interstate, including connections with intermodal transportation facilities throughout the corridor. It also outlined the highway’s potential contributions to international economic development and to social advancement in the Mississippi Delta.

A steering committee consisting of representatives of eight state departments of transportation (DOTs) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) adopted goals of improving international and interstate trade, facilitating economic development, and improving surface transportation as primary objectives.

The U.S. Department of Transportation allocated $45 million to I-69 in 2000. Congress appropriated $48.3 million for the highway in Fiscal 2002.

Getting Under Way

During the past four years, with federal or their own funding, states along the corridor began the environmental studies, which continue today to find the best locations for the I-69 corridors and receive federal approval (record of decision) for the locations before proceeding with right of way acquisition, design studies and ultimate construction — perhaps as little as three years from now, perhaps much longer, depending on funding.

The environmental studies are quite a job. They include public hearings, incorporating many of the results from these hearings into the route, and investigating, in depth, the natural, social and economic impacts of various alternatives and alignments.

The I-69 corridor has been divided into 36 “Sections of Independent Utility” (SIU), each offering a unique challenge. Some SIUs are moving ahead faster than others. Construction is actually under way, or close to beginning, on a few segments, but states just don’t know how soon the big move ahead — to design and construction — will begin.

“Like all of I-69, our portion of the project depends on funding,” said Lynn Malbrough, section head for public involvement at the Environmental Division of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department in Little Rock, AR.

Huge Project in Texas

In Texas, I-69 is an element of the Trans-Texas Corridor System (TTC), which is a multi-use approach to transportation, including roads, freight, passenger rail and a utility zone.

Including separate lanes for cars and trucks, the I-69/TCC route in Texas would be approximately 1,000 mi. long. It would often be close to rail transportation (high-speed passenger or freight) and utility zones (water, electric, natural gas, petroleum and telecommunications).

In studies, the I-69/TCC corridor cuts a swath from Texarkana, Houston and Victoria and then cuts down to Mexico, possibly at the Rio Grande Valley or Laredo.

The initial environmental study for the corridor, including 46 counties in Texas, is expected to be completed by the winter of 2006, with a 4-mi.-wide corridor.

“Additional studies will be needed to determine a final route,” said a Texas DOT fact sheet, adding that “construction can begin only after a final route has been federally approved.”

Trans-Texas Corridor studies also include another priority route (TTC-35) from Oklahoma to Mexico and possibly the Gulf Coast. This would go through the Dallas/Fort Worth and San Antonio areas, extend at least 800 mi. long through 77 counties, and focus on Interstate 35 (I-35).

(The Texas DOT has selected a private consortium, Cintra-Zachry, to plan, design, construct, finance and operate TTC-35, which will probably be a toll facility.)

“Both the I-69 and I-35 parts of the Trans-Texas Corridor are priority projects,” said Gabrielle Garcia, a spokesperson of the Texas DOT in Austin, TX, adding that it’s possible that the two routes would overlap (probably in the southern area near Mexico).

“Our goal is to build the corridor,” Garcia added. “It is planned to be a complete all-in-one corridor with many modes of transportation located close to each other. This has never been done before [on an interstate] to this size and scale. We are moving forward with our environmental studies and are very excited about the economic activity which results anytime you build an infrastructure.”

The Route to Canada

After leaving Texas, I-69 would cut approximately 100 mi. through the northwestern corner of Louisiana south of Shreveport and cross into southern Arkansas at El Dorado. Crossing the southeastern part of Arkansas for approximately 110 mi., it would exit the state near McGehee, just west of where the planned new bridge would cross the Mississippi River at the yet-to-be-built Great Mississippi River Bridge.

The corridor would next proceed northward through northwestern Mississippi, including the Delta area of the state, and cross western Tennessee near Memphis. Then it would follow improved existing parkways and interstates through western Kentucky to Henderson, KY, cross a new bridge over the Ohio River into central Indiana, connect with the old I-69 at Indianapolis and carry traffic on this interstate, which would be significantly improved, through south-central and eastern Michigan to Port Huron, via the Battle Creek, Lansing and Flint areas.

The Port Huron Bridge Project, near where I-69 and I-94 converge, would complete the link with Canada by crossing Lake Huron at the northern end of the St. Clair River. Studies for this bridge are in the environmental clearance phase.

Big Boon to Economy

State officials along the I-69 corridors are excited about the interstate’s impact on their own commerce. There is positive feedback in many local accents.

“Kentucky would be right in the middle of new economic development opportunities that would be created by a Canada-to-Mexico link,” said Mike Goins, a spokesperson of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet in Frankfurt, KY.

“We’re home to several auto manufacturing plants, as well as many parts suppliers with plants in other states close to Kentucky. Suppliers are locating all along our two other North-South corridors, I-65 and I-75. The same thing would happen along I-69, which would give us the engine to draw more of those facilities. A company in Texas, for instance, could open up a distribution facility here for just-in-time delivery.”

“I would think I-69 is one of the nation’s next interstates,” said Glenn Bolick, a spokesperson of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. “You’re talking gadzillions of dollars. It’s a congressional high-priority corridor and we have no doubt it will go through Arkansas on the route it is taking. You talk with economic development people along that route from El Dorado, Monticello and Pine Bluff, especially down in the Delta of Southern Arkansas, which is economically deprived, they will all tell you this would be the biggest economic boom they could ever imagine.”

Helping the economy of the Mississippi Delta has been one of the I-69 corridor goals from the beginning.

“Here in Mississippi we’re pretty excited about the economic opportunity which this corridor will bring, especially in the Delta, where there’s a lot of farming and poverty,” said Sedrick Dunn, a spokesperson of the Environmental Division of the Mississippi DOT in Jackson. “The construction itself would offer job opportunities. There would also be new business along the corridor, even if it’s only a trucker stopping at a convenience store.”

Industry Support

“We haven’t done any specific studies on I-69, but the bottom line is that the importance of international trade to the bottom line of the manufacturing sector is really exploding,” said Frank Moretti, director of policy and research at The Road Information Program (TRIP) in Washington, D.C.

“Continued improvements in the highway systems are going to be critical. We think looking at those types of roads is a good investment because the economic payoffs will be significant. Obviously, the NAFTA free trade agreement is having a significant impact on the movement of goods.”

David Bauer, senior vice president of government relations of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association in Washington, D.C, told Construction Equipment Guide (CEG) that “Congress clearly recognized the importance of these types of trade corridors, establishing and funding them.

“We believe such corridor programs benefit the nation’s economy because, by definition, they carry huge amounts of freight,” Bauer added.

Bauer also pointed out that the trade corridor and border infrastructure programs were at first combined under TEA-21, since getting trucks into, and out of, the country requires increased border infrastructure. The U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have proposed that the two programs now be separated.

“In no way does separating the programs dilute their importance,” Bauer said.