Controversial choice

News Indianapolis Star January 14, 2003
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The $1.7 billion extension of I-69 between Indianapolis and Evansville will go through Bloomington not Terre Haute as some environmentalists had hoped, Indiana Gov. Frank O’Bannon announced on Jan. 9, according to a report in the Indianapolis Star.

The governor said the chosen route would help the counties of southwestern Indiana, which are suffering from high unemployment and low income.

O’Bannon acknowledged that the new highway and its 25 new interchanges would cut through new terrain in many places and do permanent damage to the landscape. He pledged to minimize harm to farms, forests and wetlands.

The path suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the least damaging to the environment was dismissed after a study showed it would be the most expensive. (See EPA picks route less favored by INDOT for I-69 extension, R&B Dec. 2002, p 11.)

Indiana DOT Commissioner J. Bryan Nicol said the governor’s chosen route was not the absolute best route for stimulating economic growth, but the best route economically was the worst environmentally.

Opponents of O’Bannon’s choice called it "the most outrageous route." The route could affect up to 4,600 acres of farmland, 1,275 acres of forest, including the Patoka Wildlife Refuge, 1,000 acres of floodplains, 150 acres of wetlands and 120 streams. State officials said the INDOT would work to reforest and create new wetlands to offset any that are destroyed.

Opponents vowed to continue fighting. The Federal Highway Administration still has to approve this phase of the project, and a detailed final environmental impact statement must be prepared, probably later this year. Construction will probably not start for several years and take eight to 14 years to complete.

Indiana, like many states, faces a budget deficit this year and must come up with a plan to finance the 20% of the new highway’s costs to be covered by the state. The federal government will pick up the other 80% of the tab.

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