Interstate 69

Transportation Nation

Interstate? Close Enough

Thursday, July 12, 2012

John Thompson, Polk County Judge and Chairman of the Alliance for I-69 Texas, presents an Interstate 69 sign to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (photo:

A new riddle for you: when is an Interstate not an Interstate?

For decades, the criteria for designating new or improved roads as Interstate Highways were fairly straightforward. The Federal Highway Administration would certify “that the segment (a) is built to Interstate design standards and (b) connects to the existing Interstate System.” In short, Interstates had to be Inter-state.

But not any more. With the signing of MAP-21 last week, the law has been changed to do away with requirement (b) and allow disconnected pieces of floating “Interstate”—as long as the segment is “planned to connect to an existing Interstate System segment” in the next 25 years.

This might seem like a strange, even absurd, tweak to make, especially as part of such a contentious bill. But the provenance of the language makes its purpose clear. The change in definition was initially written as a special exception for Interstate 69, the so-called “NAFTA Highway, which has been in the works for twenty years. Congressman Blake Farenthold, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced matching bills last spring in their respective houses. Both are Republicans, but the entire Texas delegation supported the measure in lockstep.

Exceptions already existed to the standard Interstate designation. The non-contiguous states and territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico all have quasi-Interstates that were funded through the Interstate program despite the fact that they don’t meet the normal design criteria and, more obviously, will never connect to the rest of the system (unless we invade British Columbia and build some very impressive tunnels). But the new rule change is notable in that its reason for being is psychological, not geographical.

Existing freeway sections on I-69 route in Texas. Illustration /

In practical terms, the relaxed criteria will allow Texas to erect Interstate 69 signs on about eighty miles of improved highway in the Lower Rio Grand Valley border region, despite the fact that these segments don’t actually connect to other Interstates. This new designation, local officials and businessmen believe, will enhance economic development opportunities, because developers, employers, and freight companies perceive an “Interstate” differently from a U.S. Highway, even if that U.S. Highway is built to Interstate standards.

This “Interstate” branding has been an obsession among the business community in the growing Lower Rio Grande Valley region, which bears the burden of being the largest metropolitan area in the country with no Interstate highway. Back in the mid-1990s, lobbyists for the Interstate 69 coalition (including Tom Delay’s brother Randy) won legislative approval to post “Future Interstate 69 Corridor” signs along U.S. 59, U.S. 281, and U.S. 77, from Texarkana through Houston and down to the Mexican Border.

The Interstate 69 project (about which I wrote a book) is the largest new construction project since the original interstate system, and has not been without controversy. Some states—such as Indiana, Arkansas, and Louisiana—are building Interstate 69 as a greenfield highway through untouched farms and forests. (And for about seven years, when Interstate 69 was part of Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor scheme, Texas was planning to do the same.) But other states—such as Kentucky and Texas—chose to upgrade existing highways to Interstate standards.

This is not the first time the rules have been changed to get Interstate 69 signs up faster. Last fall, the Federal Highway Administration made an exception and designated thirty-eight miles of the Western Kentucky Parkway as I-69, even though the road was not up to Interstate standards. Kentucky State Senator Dorsey Ridley told the Henderson Gleaner that the red white and blue signs held more magic than any actual roadwork could. “This will move economic development in a way people don’t realize,” he said “simply by putting up a shield called I-69.” Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez agreed, saying in a statement that "these improvements will create jobs now and encourage development in the future."

It’s a sign of our times—pardon the pun—that our public servants hope to create jobs by rebranding roadways, and that a reauthorization bill that failed to increase funding for real physical transformations to our infrastructure nevertheless lowered standards to allow more superficial transformations.

Now if we can just get the definition of “High Speed” rail down to 45 mph...


Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Transportation Nation

When It Comes to Transpo Spending: Those Who Can’t Do... Study

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Boy studying, from the album: Miscellaneous. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine, ca. 1924. From the National Child Labor Committee Collection at the Library of Congress

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation) I thought there had been some Internet hiccup when I saw a news item saying that the Governor of Pennsylvania had ordered the formation of a Transportation Funding Advisory Commission. Surely this was an article from five years ago, I thought, before then-Governor Ed Rendell turned over every possible rock looking for transportation money. From 2007 through 2010, of course, Rendell tried to privatize the Pennsylania Turnpike, tried (twice) to toll Interstate 80, proposed raising the state gas tax, and suggested a transportation tax on oil profits—all unsuccessful.

But no. Pennsylvania's new governor, Tom Corbett, is creating a new commission, which he has ordered to give a final report by August 1. The commission’s recommendations, I’ll bet you a shiny quarter, will be to do many or all of the things Rendell already tried. A brand new report from the longstanding Pennsylvania State Transportation Advisory Committee, not to be confused with the new Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, already hints at all of these same funding sources: tolls, public-private partnerships, increased taxes and fees, and eventually a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) charge.

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Reports suggesting some combination of those solutions were already easy to find. There was, for instance, the January 2008 report of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. Then, a year later, there were the findings of the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission. Most recently, the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform joined the chorus arguing for an increase in the federal gas tax (that choir consisting largely of think tanks and other parties who won’t actually have to vote on such a measure).

But the announcement of yet another study group in Pennsylvania, where an aggressive Governor spent an entire term beating his head against the walls of his state legislature and the toll-wary USDOT, feels like a particularly telling case of hemming and hawing. And it’s by no means an anomaly.

In Indiana, Governor (and potential Republican presidential candidate) Mitch Daniels seems to be punting on funding the last stretch of Interstate 69, the controversial “NAFTA Highway” that he has pushed as a cornerstone of his legacy. The state legislature passed a bill last week giving the governor and INDOT the power to enter into public-private partnerships for toll roads, but rather than wield that power now and risk a backlash, Daniels is allowing—you guessed it—a study committee to explore the various funding options. That committee will take its time: two years, just long enough for Daniels to clear out of the statehouse.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Transportation Nation

Red Tape or a Green Vine? A New Lawsuit Against I-69

Friday, February 11, 2011

(Matt Dellinger - Transportation Nation) In Indiana, another battle has begun in the war over Interstate 69.

Wednesday, the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) and the Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR) filed a complaint (pdf) asking the U.S. District Court to invalidate an Army Corps of Engineers permit issued for the I-69 Evansville-to-Indianapolis highway project.

"The suit alleges that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers never conducted a thorough, independent, and objective review of the permit application or analyzed alternative routes before issuing the permit," a press release says. "One of these alternatives, a route following U.S. 41 and I-70, would save Indiana taxpayers over a billion dollars and reduce the project’s destruction of wetlands, streams, forests and farmland by 60 percent."

The members of both HEC and CARR have been fighting the state highway department over its plans for the “NAFTA Highway” for twenty years, objecting not as NIMBYs but on more universal social, economic, and environmental grounds. Both groups were party to a 2007 lawsuit, also filed in District Court, that argued more generally that Indiana’s new-terrain route had been chosen unlawfully. The decision (pdf) by Judge David Hamilton, upheld the state’s actions, but left the door open to future lawsuits such as the one filed Wednesday.

The initial hearing in the case probably won’t be for a few weeks, but meanwhile the conversation about the relative importance of environmental concerns and highway construction will continue, in a different way, nearby.

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Transportation Nation

Local Planners Squashed in IN; Interstate Gets Approval

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Before a room of concerned citizens, Indiana Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Samuel Sarvis explains to the Bloomington-Monroe County MPO what the state intends to do if they refuse to acknowledge Interstate 69 in their plan.

(Matt Dellinger - Transportation Nation) When last we reported from Bloomington, Indiana, members of the local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) were facing a rather difficult decision: The Indiana Department of Transportation had demanded that the MPO amend its Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) to include the few relevant miles of the 1,400-mile Interstate 69 project, which local citizens had consistently and fiercely fought for years.

INDOT Deputy Director Sam Sarvis had been cagey about the importance of the TIP amendment but, as we reported, federal law is clear: An MPO has primary control over what gets built in a given urban area. (Or at least it's supposed to have primary control.) In order for a state to spend federal dollars on a project within a Metropolitan Planning Area, the project must be on the MPO’s TIP. All four elected officials sitting on the MPO policy committee—Mayor Mark Kruzan, Council Member Andy Ruff, County Council Member Julie Thomas, and County Commissioner Mark Stoops—had publicly opposed the construction of I-69, and to many highway foes around Bloomington, the modest power bestowed upon the MPO by federal law seemed like it might be the Achilles heel of the highway that Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels was pushing through.

The state was certainly taking the MPO's deliberations seriously. They were publicly stoic on the matter, but according to Ruff, they were privately playing hardball, threatening to withhold funds for important local projects if the MPO did not budge on I-69. “The state is bullying the MPO and even blackmailing us, in a way, to do what we as a community have decided is completely wrongheaded policy,” Ruff told Transportation Nation. The blackmail seemed to be working: Mayor Kruzan hinted in August that, given this promise of punishment, he might be forced to give in.

And he did. The vote on the matter, originally planned for September, was postponed until November 5th. That afternoon, Samuel Sarvis stood before the MPO policy committee and, in a startlingly public display of what is normally back room arm-twisting, told them what would happen if they voted against the Interstate 69 amendment.

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Transportation Nation

The second stimulus, I-69, and the battle for local control

Thursday, September 09, 2010

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation)  Along with the proposal to jump-start a six-year transportation authorization with $50 Billion in funding, President Obama on Monday also suggested changes in the way such federal dollars are spent. His Administration's promotion of a National Infrastructure Bank and other reforms are early, tentative steps towards what could be a major reworking of the way we decide which projects to construct.

But deciding how to decide won't be easy. Anyone looking for an object lesson in the difficult issues ahead would do well to study the Interstate 69 controversy in Bloomington, Indiana, where the state and the city have locked horns over the biggest highway project in years.

At Eastern Greene Middle School in southern Indiana, citizens peruse maps of the state's route for Interstate 69

The proposed 1400-mile extension of Interstate 69 into a Canada-to Mexico "NAFTA" highway has been on the books for twenty years. It was one of the high-priority corridors designated in the 1991 transportation reauthorization—a notable exception in a bill that was otherwise hyped as the beginning of post-interstate multimodalism and increased local control over planning.

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Transportation Nation

A Lively Night in the Fight Over Interstate 69

Thursday, August 26, 2010

(Bloomfield, Indiana - Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation)  Tonight will be a big night for opponents of Interstate 69 in southern Indiana. The 20-year long local battle against the Canada-to-Mexico highway is reaching a climax. The state has released a draft environmental impact statement for the short segment closest to Bloomington, where the road is widely unpopular.

The Indiana Department of Transportation will host a public hearing this evening on the DEIS.  Public comments against the highway have historically failed to convince the Indiana Department of Transportation or the various Governors who have advanced the project. But one of the most contentious debates has long been based in Bloomington.

Longtime I-69 foes Thomas and Sandra Tokarski, the founders of  Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, sent an urgent email to their supporters asking them to attend. “Governor Daniels is  fast-tracking and cheapening I-69,” they wrote, referring to Mitch Daniels’ strategy of reducing engineering standards in order to fit the project into the state’s shrinking budget. “It is VERY IMPORTANT for lots of people to show up and comment on this devastating project. We must speak out or be paved over.” 

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Transportation Nation

Breaking Ground on the Post-Interstate Interstate

Saturday, August 07, 2010

(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.

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