Saturday, March 18, 2006

I-69: Get it Built

The U.S. Interstate Highway system is the largest engineered structure in the world. Like buildings, the system was planned and specified prior to its being constructed.

Consisting of more than 42 thousand miles of road surface, The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, its official designation, was initially funded in 1956. Seventeen years later, in 1973, the nationwide system of highways was more than 98 percent complete.

I-69 is a relatively minor segment of the Interstate system, running from southern Michigan to Indianapolis. But, thanks partly to the North American Free Trade Agreement, I-69 started getting a lot more attention as the best direct route for trade from Canada to Mexico.

Initial planning for the extension of I-69 began in the mid-1990s. In 1998, Congress gave its approval for the extension of I-69 from Indianapolis to the Rio Grande. Since then, much progress has been made in other states along the highway's proposed route, including Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee.

But while other states have started construction on their sections of the highway, Indiana is lagging far behind. Opposition groups held up the plans for years.

Obviously, it is necessary to determine the best route for any proposed highway. Studies were necessary to ascertain the most appropriate route, and to determine what the environmental impact will be. However, special interest groups have delayed construction of I-69 much longer than was necessary to do a study.

Now, after many years of study and debate, the proposed route was supposedly finalized. And, thanks to the passage of Gov. Daniels’ Major Moves legislation funding is now available to finally begin construction on the long-awaited highway.

But, politics being what they are, look for the next legislative session to be a contentious one over the northern end of the I-69 route, and over whether or not it should be a toll road.

The governor wants the route to follow existing route 37 through Perry Township. But neighborhood opposition has convinced many legislators that a move to the west would be better.

After 10 years or more of planning and public hearings, one would think the proposed route would have been carved in stone by now. Apparently that is not the case.

The new debate threatens to delay the start of construction yet another three years or so. The project is already 20 years behind. By rights, motorists should have been driving on the new highway by now. But the earliest that can happen is at least 10 years out.

It took less than 20 years to construct the nation’s Interstate highway system, from start to finish. If politics and opposition groups had held up initial construction of the system, we still might be getting around the country on two-lane highways.

It is taking longer to build Indiana’s section of I-69 than it took to construct the entire Interstate system. And that only hurts the state.

Sen. Brent Waltz (R-Greenwood) said we ought to spend a bit of time to make sure the final route makes sense. He said a three-year delay would be worth it if it results in a route that is better for the state.

But the route has already been approved by painstaking study and debate. It took years to finalize. It’s now time to move on.

The state now has the money. It has a route plan in place. The only thing left to debate about is whether or not it should be a toll road, and that can be decided after construction is well underway.

Daniels wants construction to begin in 2008, which is about a decade later than it should have started. The General Assembly should not waist even more time haggling over something that was supposedly already decided.

It’s time to finally get it built.

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