- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 4, 2002

EVANSVILLE, Ind. It was dubbed the "NAFTA Superhighway," a new interstate that would span the United States, linking Canada to Mexico and easing truck congestion while improving international access for U.S. goods.
Yet five years after Congress authorized Interstate 69, little pavement has been laid on the project expected to cost at least $8.5 billion. Many roadblocks have occurred at the state level, where disputes have raged from Indiana to Texas about where to locate sections of the highway.
In Indiana, a decision is expected in the coming weeks on a route from Indianapolis to Evansville, an Ohio River city near the Kentucky line. The decision, coming after years of environmental studies and contentious debate, will allow construction of a key piece of the interstate.
Still, debate is likely to linger over whether the highway is still needed and whether Congress will follow through with funding.
Proponents say the interstate will make travel easier, spur economic growth along it especially in poor, rural areas and aid in the transportation of international goods. Opponents say the project costs too much and would cause too much farmland and forestry to be destroyed.
The transportation department will ask Congress next year for $6.6 billion for Interstate 69 as part of reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, said James Newland, executive director of the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition. The remaining funding would come from matching funds by the individual states.
The interstate would go through Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. It already exists from Canada, through Michigan, to Indianapolis.
"In a world market, we need faster, efficient ways of getting our goods to market," said Rep. John Hostettler, a Republican who represents southern Indiana. "I think it's really an issue of fairness and an issue of future economic stability."
Two transportation corridors that make up I-69 have already received about $245 million in federal funds, in addition to funding from other appropriations and other states, according to the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition.
The new interstate is expected to link 10 urban areas with 50,000 or more people, save four hours in travel time between Indianapolis and the Mexican border, and help control an increase in truck flow because of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement.
Divided into 32 sections for construction, the highway might not be fully linked until 2020, said James McDowell, a political science professor at Indiana State University.
So far, construction has started only in Mississippi.
In Indiana, state Transportation Commissioner J. Bryan Nicol has long said a route would be selected by the end of the year. But last week he acknowledged that the announcement could be delayed as the state examines a previously unstudied route backed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, in a recent report, objected to the environmental damage some of the shorter proposed routes would have on wetlands and forest.
Once a route is selected, transportation officials have cautioned, construction in Indiana could take years.
A government study projects that the interstate will create 27,000 jobs by 2025, resulting in $11 billion in additional wages.
But opponents question the quality of the jobs, saying any form of economic growth would be in the form of truck stops and sprawl. In Indiana alone, building the interstate could mean the loss of as much as 682 acres of core forest habitat or 5,730 acres of prime farmland depending on the chosen route.
They also contend that federal studies show that it would primarily be used for local and regional travel.
"I think there are already north-south highways connecting the three countries," said John Moore, attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago who opposes it for budget and environmental reasons. "I think that budget concerns and environmental concerns are more important. There are already roads that can get you from A to B."
Environmental, labor and public-interest groups are also opposed to opening U.S. highways to commercial trucks from Mexico-based companies. The Teamsters union, Public Citizen, the Environmental Law Foundation and other groups filed a motion in court Monday to prevent the Bush administration from allowing Mexican-domiciled trucks on highways throughout the United States until an environmental assessment is completed.
The Transportation Department said last week that it would start processing applications from Mexican trucking outfits that want to operate throughout the United States. The ability to haul cargo into the United States was negotiated under NAFTA, but the United States has not implemented the provisions.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco gave the government until today to respond.
Staff writer Jeffrey Sparshott contributed to this report from Washington.

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