(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.
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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.