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I-69 plan rankles residents

Community disagrees over future of proposed highway

POSTED AT 12:00 AM ON Apr. 8, 2004 

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One week after the Federal Highway Administration approved a new-terrain corridor for Interstate 69, debate continues to swirl around the controversial route, which would extend the national superhighway mere miles from Bloomington's downtown.

The approved route, 3-C, would utilize existing State Road 37, which would run from Indianapolis through Bloomington, and south toward Bedford, bank southwest, and lay more than 100 miles of new asphalt between Washington and Evansville. The Indiana Department of Transportation estimates the 142-mile project will take 14 years to complete.

But Bloomington City Council At-Large representative Andy Ruff thinks the money just isn't there.

"I don't believe it's going to get built," Ruff, also a steering committee member of Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, said. "It's just a political project. Politicians will keep it going so they can keep political exchanges of campaign contributions, promises, support and backscratching going by saying OK, we're still saying we can get this thing done."

Ruff further alleged the FHWA decision "meant nothing."

"The highway administration lets states make these sorts of decisions," he said. "Rarely does FHWA not accept this kind of decision by states. The reason is because it's the state's money. It isn't federal money. If we were truly using scarce federal money, why would the government allow some twerp like (INDOT Commissioner) Brian Nichols -- this lawyer, this young punk bureaucrat political wannabe -- make a decision about the investment of billions of truly federal money?"

Yet INDOT officials say 80 percent of construction costs will be absorbed by the federal government. The remaining 20 percent will be culled from revenues from the Indiana gas tax -- not from state coffers, according to INDOT director of communications Tony Felts.

"We've been very clear about the funding mechanism for this project," Felts said. "It does not require money from the state's general fund. It will be 80 percent funded by the federal government. Indiana's share -- 20 percent will be paid for by revenues generated from the gas tax. These are monies earmarked specifically for transportation projects."

Furthermore, Felts said the project accounts for a mere 5 percent of the $33 billion INDOT plans to direct toward highway infrastructure costs over the next 20 years.

"The Federal Highway Administration has recognized this long-term spending plan as reasonable," Felts said. "The project must be looked at in terms of long term benefits, not solely in terms of costs."

In a letter dated Jan. 30 to I-69 Project Manager Michael Grovak of Evansville-based firm Lochmueller and Associates, Indiana Senate Finance Chairman Lawrence Borst also alleged "no serious consideration for an alternate route" was made by either Grovak's firm or INDOT. Furthermore, he claims the new terrain corridor will inflict considerable damage to Indianapolis' Perry Township, which he represents. The township lies just south of I-465, and Borst says the northern terminus of the proposed routing bisects a highly-populated sector of Marion County and "eliminates cross-township traffic" in his district.

Nicole Di Camillo, campaign coordinator for the Indiana Public Interest Research Group initiative opposing I-69, said INPIRG has been working with CARR, as well as the Hoosier Environmental Council and the Association of Monroe County Taxpayers, to ensure I-69 doesn't come through Bloomington.

"I feel that other than a few, wealthy business people who stand to profit from the development (of the fast-food restaurants and hotels that would be built up around the highway) most citizens of Bloomington are opposed to an I-69 route through Bloomington," she said. "Most people, especially those directly affected by the route, feel that it will bring no benefits to Bloomington -- just traffic, congestion, destroyed homes and land, and lack of funds for other highway projects."

But INDOT points to the economic advantages the new routes would facilitate, specifically citing greater accessibility to Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center, as well as to Evansville and Washington, both of which lack major corridors to and from Bloomington and Indianapolis. The mayors of both Evansville and Washington have indicated their support for the approved route.

"The highway will serve as an economic development engine for all of Southwest Indiana, generating $3.5 billion in additional personal income growth," Felts said.

Economic issues notwithstanding, Ruff, whose experience as a vociferous opponent to the new terrain route predates his role as city councilman -- said other major detrimental side effects are sure to emerge should I-69 run through Bloomington city limits.

"Bloomington's competitive advantage, in terms of attracting investment and population, is due to the unique character of our community that makes us different from Muncie or Marion or Anderson," Ruff said. "It's our setting -- it's our attractive relatively high-quality natural environment. We have a distinctive community character and atmosphere."

I-69, he alleges, would taint that, making Bloomington succumb to what he deems the "generica" of industrialized sprawl.

The highway would be "bringing all the things that degrade our most valuable most critical assets economically" by generating air, water and noise pollution and forcing Bloomington to assume the role of "bedroom city" to nearby Indianapolis.

Felts said INDOT will work with local communities to assess the project's impact there as part of the "tier 2" planning process. Context-sensitive design techniques such as sound barriers and adding vegetation to affected areas will also be implemented to minimize impact.

Felts said tier 2 divides the corridor into six sections, each represented by a local project office.

"Now it's important for individual communities along the route to work with the local project offices to determine the exact route that best meets the needs of each individual community," Felts said.

Yet Bloomington mayor Mark Kruzan believes the environmental impact of construction, as well as the impact on homes and businesses in the new highway's path, will be "tremendous." He believes the current discussion should focus on what construction will affect -- specifically, frontage roads and overpasses, highway cuts, pedestrian and bicyclist accommodation and improvements to infrastructure.

"I've opposed the 3-C route," Kruzan said. "I sincerely believe taxpayers should be concerned that what was once billed as an $800 million project now has a $2 billion price tag before construction has even started. The loss of land owned by existing businesses or by families for generations is an even higher price to pay."

-- Contact senior writer Holly Johnson at hljohnso@indiana.edu.

 

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