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TN, KY Residents Debate Impact of I-69

Wed August 17, 2005 - National Edition
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WASHINGTON (AP) When Interstate 69 is completed and truckers start making the long haul from Canada to Mexico, anyone who gets hungry around mile 760 will be welcome to stop at The White House — Jim Prather’s restaurant in Troy, TN.

Some business owners along the Interstate 69 corridor are expecting the so-called “NAFTA Superhighway” to be a windfall for the remote small towns in western Tennessee and Kentucky.

But not Prather, whose upscale eatery will be approximately a mile from the proposed route.

“I don’t think it will be the boon to the economy that everyone else thinks,” said Prather, a Colorado native who’s lived in the small Obion County town for approximately 20 years. “When people are whizzing by on the interstate they would have to go a pretty good ways out of their way to get here.”

Today, I-69 is a short ribbon that starts at the Canadian border at Port Huron, MI, and ends in Indianapolis.

But since the early 1990s, a powerful group of proponents have envisioned it running down the Mississippi River to Memphis, then heading south into Arkansas and Louisiana, and then finally through Texas to the Mexican border.

Those proponents include House Majority Leader Tom Delay, of Texas, (where approximately 1,000 mi. of I-69 are slated) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, of Tennessee.

They helped get hundreds of millions of dollars for the project into the six-year federal highway bill.

Even lawmakers aren’t sure of the exact total of I-69 earmarks, some of which are dual-purposed with other projects. Moreover, the funding levels are certain to change between now and when congressional appropriators — who determine federal spending — draw up their annual budgets.

But Jim Newland, executive director of the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition, estimated the total earmarks for I-69 at $404 million through fiscal 2009. At least $100 million was earmarked for Tennessee alone.

“While we didn’t get enough to build the whole thing in the next five years, Congress has decided that I-69 simply must be completed,” Newland said. He estimated the total cost to construct the highway at between approximately $8.8 billion in today’s dollars, with states picking up approximately 10 percent of the bill.

Newland has spent more than a decade battling highway opponents in his home state of Indiana, where I-69 would rip through long stretches of farmland and Amish country.

But Kentucky and Tennessee have felt little of that acrimony. Once the highway plan crosses a pair of proposed Ohio River bridges south of Evansville, IN, it has met little resistance.

In Kentucky, that’s because the highway mostly would follow existing parkway routes.

Some construction will be needed to smooth out the interchange between the Pennyrile and Western Kentucky parkways, said Kevin McClearn, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s branch manager of planning of District 2, which includes the route.

McClearn said the project could take 20 years to be completed nationwide, but some are already looking forward to it.

“It will probably build up more as far as hotels and stuff like that,” said Lonnie Litchfield, who manages a CarQuest Auto Parts store in Benton, KY.

Litchfeld said I-69 would shorten the approximately three-hour trip from Benton to Memphis, which he makes approximately six times a year on what is now U.S. Highway 51 in Tennessee.

I-69 also may shorten a drive for his wife, who travels north on the Kentucky parkways to shop in Evansville, IN. He thought for a second and laughed, “I don’t know if that’s good for me or not.”

Business owners in Memphis also hope the interstate will bring in new customers from the currently hard-to-reach Mississippi Delta, said Roby S. Williams, president of the Black Business Association of Memphis.

But Robert Puentes, a fellow with the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, said — as Prather suspected — lawmakers often overestimate the economic boost a highway will bring to rural areas.

“You really don’t see large economic impacts coming from outside the region,” Puentes said.

And since the road won’t be complete for at least a decade, it’s difficult to say who the winners will be.

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