Evansville, IN (AP) It was dubbed the “NAFTA” Superhighway,” a new interstate that would span the United States, linking Canada to Mexico and easing truck congestion while improving international access for U.S. goods.
Yet five years after Congress authorized Interstate 69, little pavement has been laid on the project expected to cost at least $8.5 billion. Many roadblocks have occurred at the state level, where disputes have raged from Indiana to Texas about where to locate sections of the new highway.
In Indiana, a decision is expected in upcoming weeks on a route from Indianapolis to Evansville, an Ohio River city near the Kentucky state line. The determination, coming after years of environmental studies and contentious debate, will allow construction of a key piece of the interstate.
Still, debate is likely to linger over whether the highway is still needed and if Congress will follow through with funding.
Proponents say the interstate will make travel easier, spur economic growth along it, especially in poor, rural areas, and aid in the transportation of international goods. Opponents say the project costs too much, and would cause too much farmland and forestry to be destroyed.
The transportation department will ask Congress in 2003 for $6.6 billion for Interstate 69 as part of reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, said James Newland, executive director of the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition. The remaining funding would come from matched dollars by the individual states.
The intestate would go through Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. It already exists from Canada, through Michigan, to Indianapolis.
“In a world market, we need faster, efficient ways of getting our goods to market,” said Rep. John Hostettler, a Republican who represents southern Indiana. “I think it’s really an issue of fairness, and an issue of future economic stability.”
Already, two transportation corridors that make up I-69 have received approximately $245 million in federal funds, in addition to funding from other appropriations and other states, according to the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition.
The new interstate is expected to link 10 urban areas with 50,000 or more people, save four hours in travel time between Indianapolis and the Mexican border and help control an increase in truck flow because of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Divided into 32 sections for construction, they might not fully be linked until 2020, said James McDowell, a political service professor at Indiana State University.
So far, new construction has only started in Mississippi.
In Indiana, state Transportation Commissioner J. Bryan Nicol long said a route would be selected by the end of the year. But recently he admitted the announcement could be delayed as the state examines a previously unstudied route backed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The EPA, in a recent report, objected to the environmental damage some of the shorter proposed routes would have on wetlands and forest.
Once a route is selected, transportation officials have cautioned that construction in Indiana could take years.
The interstate is projected to create 27,000 jobs by 2025, resulting in $11 billion in additional wages, according to a government study.
But opponents question the quality of the jobs, saying any form of economic growth would be in the form of truck stops and sprawl. In Indiana alone, building the interstate could mean the loss of up to 682 acres of core forest habitat or 5,730 acres of prime farmland depending on the chosen route.
They also contend federal studies show it would primarily be used for local and regional travel.
“I think there are already north-south highways connecting the three countries,” said John Moore, attorney of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, who opposes it for budget and environmental reasons. “I think that budget concerns and environmental concerns are more important … There are already roads that can get you from A to B.”
McDowell said an argument could be made that I-69 is “not absolutely necessary” but support remains strong — especially among many politicians and business leaders.
“Highways are tangible things that people in Congress can say ’Look what I got for you,’” McDowell said. “American like roads. They like cars.”
An I-69 caucus of congressional heavy hitters like House Majority Whip Tom Delay of Texas and Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi support the project. The interstate would go through the Lower Mississippi Delta Region and the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas — two regions backers say could only be helped by the interstate.
Hostettler said he hopes Indiana’s decision on a route will build momentum for the project among the other states.
“They are looking toward Indiana to begin the completion,” Hostettler said. “I-69 terminated in Indiana. The obvious place to begin the completion would be in Indiana.”