CARR - Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads

Interstate Progress Still Stop-and-Go

Indianpolis Star, November 17, 2002

Our position is: EPA bolsters the case for extending I-69 along existing roads, but complicates the planning process.

The score continues to mount in favor of the I-70/U.S. 41 route for extending I-69 between Indianapolis and Evansville. But there is a new player in this long-running game. Already acknowledged by state officials as the least expensive and least environ- mentally disruptive of the various routes under consideration, I-70/U.S. 41 took the prize in a new report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This did not go unnoticed by environmentalists and many others who support the so-called Terre Haute alternative. They've been up in arms since it was left off the list of five preferred routes in the state's draft environmental impact statement submitted last summer to the feds, the principal source of funding.

In its critique of the statement, EPA told the Federal Highway Administration the
I-70/U.S. 41 route, upgraded to interstate standards, "has at least two or three times less impact on multiple resources when compared with the preferred alternatives, with the lowest construction costs and very low operation and maintenance costs."

The EPA stopped short, however, of endorsing I-70/U.S. 41 outright. And in a strange twist just last week, Indiana Department of Transportation Commissioner J. Bryan Nicol said EPA asked his agency back in October to consider yet another route -- a compromise path that would use U.S. 41between Evansville and Vincennes, swing over east to Bloomington, then follow an upgraded Ind. 37 to Indianapolis.

Nicol says he welcomes the suggestion and will get his people to work analyzing its logistics, cost and environmental impact. The state, he says, considers it just part of the overall input gathered during the recent public comment period on the environmental statement. Critics deem it extraordinary to add to the list of alternatives at this late stage, and they're skeptical of a proposal that would require more of the new-terrain construction they've opposed regarding other southern Indiana routes. Nicol says it's uncertain now whether the state can meet its goal of settling on a route by the end of the year. That looks like an understatement. Already, objections are flying. Another round of hearings may well be needed. And, of course, the specter of legal action against the project will grow.

At this point, the best hope is that all options will get full consideration -- including I-70/U.S. 41. While not ruling out that alternative, state planners have favored corridors through southwest Indiana that Evansville leaders and the highway lobby advocate. As EPA pointed out, the latter choices would involve much more new construction through wetlands, forests and farmlands than would the Terre Haute route, which would entail primarily an upgrading of existing highway.

Nor did EPA find I-70/U.S. 41 to be significantly slower than the preferred routes, a key factor in its being left off the state's preferred list. Nicol disagrees with EPA on that point and reiterates the state's position that I-70/U.S. 41 "is a very poor performer economically."

But again, all input is still being given due attention, we are told. Among that input is a consultant's study by proponents of I-70/U.S. 41 that claims it would be as beneficial as any other route to the southwest Indiana economy. The state should give those projected benefits a thorough hearing, because in the cost department, the use of highways already built looks more and more like a winner.

Indianapolis Star, November 17, 2002


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