Breaking Ground on the Post-Interstate Interstate

Saturday, August 07, 2010 - 01:15 PM

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation) The highway megaproject, an animal still thriving in China and other developing countries, has become something of an endangered species here in America. This has a little bit to do with actual endangered species—and more specifically the environmental laws we put in place to protect them. It also has a lot to do with money, which is kinda tight these days: The Highway Trust Fund is famously broke, and the transportation reauthorization bill is stalled because there’s no consensus on how to make up for anemic gas tax revenues.

But despite all of this—and despite the fact that, technically, the interstate construction program ended in the mid-1990s—the biggest new interstate of the post-interstate era is still struggling its way into existence up and down the middle of the country.

The controversial 1,400-mile extension of Interstate 69 may one day connect Canada and Mexico through Indianapolis, Memphis, Shreveport, and Houston, making it—according to a forthcoming book written by, well, me—the last great American highway. It may never be fully built. But last month, I-69 made some big strides.

In Indiana, the state broke ground this summer on a new section of the highway, which is designed to connect Evansville to Indianapolis. The Indiana DOT says it’s poised to have 67 miles of new terrain highway under construction by the spring. Governor Mitch Daniels, who conjured the money to build much of the new I-69 with his controversial lease of the Indiana Toll Road in 2006, has suggested that the new I-69 can be built as far north as Bloomington by 2012—when, coincidentally, Daniels’ term will expire and someone will have to run against Barack Obama for President, perhaps on a platform of creating jobs and stimulating the economy of a downtrodden Midwestern state.

In the downtrodden southern state of Mississippi, another rumored 2012 contender, Governor Haley Barbour, is also nearing the end of his second term. It was Mississippi that first cut ribbon on a short stretch of new I-69, in 2006, and last month the state released its final environmental impact statement for the remaining 120-mile piece through the delta, which will tie the casinos near Tunica to the proposed Great River Bridge over to Arkansas.

The Interstate 69 extension has met fierce and persistent opposition in Indiana from a diverse coalition of environmentalists, farmers, fiscal conservatives, and young anti-globalization anarchists—two of whom recently signed a plea agreement settling charges that stemmed from protests in the spring of 2008. In other states, things are quieter. Kentucky and Texas have chosen to upgrade existing minor highways. In Louisiana, the ongoing study has been held up by concerns over the fate of a single row of old pecan trees at an LSU study station.

Do you think Interstate 69 should be built? Why or why not? Post a comment here to the left, and make sure to tell us where you’re from!

Matt Dellinger, now a weekly contributor to Transportation Nation, is the author of Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.


Comments [6]


Maintain existing roads and expand mass transportation options before building any new roads. Freight and passenger rail needs massive upgrades, in addition to local transit. Roads and the sprawl they bring are unsustainable--they are destroying our beautiful rural areas, including here in Lancaster County, PA.

Aug. 12 2010 11:04 AM

I like how you presented the story. Like the other commenters thus far, I am also opposed to new highways (and most highway widenings) in this country. Haven't we paved enough of our country already? More roads leads to more driving and more pollution and, eventually, more congestion. It's high time to promote other forms of transportation much more substantially. If this recession continues, which seems pretty likely, how about a New Deal of rail infrastructure investment to upgrade existing corridors and fund higher speed intercity service?

Aug. 10 2010 10:14 PM

We are tearing up paved roads to go back to gravel because we can't afford the upkeep ... and want to lumber ourselves with more heavily cross-subsidized interstate highway?

We could put 15,000 miles of electrified Rapid Freight Rail Steel Interstates in place for a 5 cent tariff on imported oil ~ because all that is required is to subsidize the interest, while access and user fees cover the capital cost.

And at the same time by taking half or more of the long haul freight truck traffic off the interstate, would substantially reduce the maintenance cost of the Interstates so we can afford to maintain what we already have.

Aug. 10 2010 01:57 PM
Darrel W. Cole

Fascinating post and topic Matt. In my time working in PR in the transportation world, the one sure thing is that there will always be conflict between property impacts and any kind of infrastructure, be it for a transit station, new road, expanding shoulders on an old road, adding traffic signal to an intersection, and even installing sidewalks. This conflict is at the heart of almost every debate on this, and it comes down to who will be impacted the least, and is there political will to withstand the criticism. THere are many other factors that come into play that can kill a project, such as environmental, impacts on disadvantaged et al. NEPA regulations determine much about what goes where and what impacts are acceptable. And, yes, I have been involved firsthand on more than one occassion when a tree can kill a project, or at least alter its path. I think though the conflict is a positive because the resulting end product is a better product.
Thanks for the insight.

Aug. 10 2010 07:04 AM
Cap'n Transit

Thanks for asking, Matt. No, no more of I-69 should be built, because highways are not sustainable. If we want to move freight between Canada and Mexico, we should spend the money upgrading our railroads so that they have the capacity.

That would be much more energy-efficient and much less polluting. It would also provide less of an incentive to build sprawl.

Aug. 09 2010 12:42 AM

We don't need to be spending money on more highways in this country, we need to be spending money on ways to get cars off of highways.

Aug. 08 2010 04:08 PM

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