The story of the so-called NAFTA Superhighway is long and winding — and without a new influx of funds, the end of the road may still be a long way off.
When complete, Interstate 69 would pass through eight states and provide a direct route through the American heartland between Canada and Mexico.
Most of the states along the route are upgrading existing roads to interstate standards. Indiana, in contrast, must build almost 100 miles of entirely new road for its portion of the project.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has been fast-tracking construction. But when he leaves office in January, the road will be less than half-finished — and money for the project is running out.
Years In The Making
As he drives his big silver Cadillac past earthmovers, bulldozers and mountains of dirt, Tom Baumert points out a recently completed overpass, beaming like a proud father.
Baumert lives in Washington, Ind., a railroad town in the southwestern part of the state. Washington flourished in the 19th century, when the country depended on trains to move goods and people, but languished as train travel waned and the modern highway system left it behind.
This is where the idea for I-69 developed more than two decades ago, and where some of the freeway’s biggest supporters live.
But the project collected dust for years. Four different governors studied the effort, but none committed funds to begin construction.
That is, until Daniels took office in 2005. “I-69 was clearly one of the promises that had been made, or the commitments the state had, that there was no prospect of paying for,” he says.
One year after taking office, Daniels leased the state’s toll road to a foreign consortium for 75 years in exchange for a payment of $3.85 billion. He then pledged $700 million toward I-69, making its completion a stated priority.
Today, the first part of the interstate in Indiana is already open. By the end of this year, two-thirds of the road will either be complete or under construction.
“There is no other state breaking records 10 years in a row for investment in new public assets,” Daniels says of Indiana’s progress.
A Question Of Priorities
But the fate of the interstate is now in doubt. There’s currently enough money to build the road from Evansville, on the Indiana-Kentucky border, north to Bloomington.
But that leaves a big gap — approximately 90 miles — between Bloomington and where I-69 picks up again near Indianapolis.
Daniels leaves office in January. By then, toll road money helping to fund the project will be nearly gone, and dwindling gas tax revenues and federal support won’t be able to cover all of the state’s transportation priorities.
Daniels says his successor will have to find the money to complete the project, but I-69 opponents say it’s just not worth it. I-69 alone could cost another $2 billion, on top of the $1 billion the state has already committed.
“I-69 is really the last thing you should be doing,” says Brian Garvey, part of a grassroots group advocating against the project’s completion.
Garvey wonders why the governor is pumping so much money into the interstate when the state can’t afford to keep up existing roads.
“Creating a whole new project … essentially will be unsustainable,” Garvey says. “What exists now is unsustainable.”
Opponents are also concerned about the project’s impact on Indiana farmland.
The End Of The Line?
But back in the small town of Washington, Tom Baumert hopes his decades-old dream will soon come to life.
“I used to say that I’m going to be an old man, sitting in the backseat slobbering all over myself, whenever they drive me on I-69,” Baumert says. “But you know, I might actually get to drive my own car … on this thing yet.”
The Republican and Democratic frontrunners vying to be Indiana’s next governor both express support for completing I-69. But neither has said where the state will find the money — leaving the risk that the legacy of yet another governor could end up stranded on the shoulder.