October 24, 2019 12:00 PM, EDT

How Indiana Got to the ‘I-69 Finish Line’

Indiana I-69Vehicles travel along Interstate 69 north of Angola, Ind. (Associated Press/Joe Raymond)

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The Indiana Department of Transportation has dubbed Section 6 of the Interstate 69 project the “I-69 Finish Line.”

“It’s a new name for the end of a huge project,” department spokeswoman Mallory Duncan said.

The scope of the I-69 project can be difficult to grasp. From a national perspective, the highway is supposed to stretch about 2,680 miles from Canada to Mexico. Much of the work needed to make that a reality remains unfinished.

Among the eight states the completed I-69 is supposed to pass through, Indiana stands out. The Hoosier state has nearly fulfilled its responsibility for the project, but it’s taken decades to reach this point.

To be fair, I-69 in Indiana was considered completed in the early 1970s. At that time, it ran 157 miles from the north side of Indianapolis to the Michigan state line.

When people started pushing to extend the highway through southwestern Indiana, it didn’t seem like the proposal would gain traction. In February 1990, consultancy firm Donohue and Associates published a congressionally mandated study assessing the economic feasibility of three prospective highway corridors.

The study concluded that none of the routes met the minimum threshold for going forward with the project.

Advocates for extending the highway in Indiana got some help when representatives from the six other states formed a group called Interstate 69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition. In November 1992, the group met in Memphis, Tenn., to begin promoting a new transcontinental highway as a mechanism to spur economic development for rural, isolated communities along the corridor. I-69 was nicknamed the NAFTA superhighway in honor of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The group’s advocacy seemed to work. In December 1993, the Evansville-to-Indianapolis section of I-69 was added to the National Transportation System. The project stalled two years later when the Federal Highway Administration delayed the release of a draft environmental impact statement for I-69. The administration wanted stronger economic arguments for the road.

In April 1997, officials from the state department of transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency met to move the environmental impact statement ahead. The goal was to begin construction in Indiana by July 1999.

The project would soon hit another snag when NBC News aired a report on the Evansville-to-Bloomington section of the highway during a segment called “The Fleecing of America.” Opponents of what was called the new-terrain route said the Evansville-to-Terre Haute-to-Indianapolis option was cheaper and more efficient.

State officials announced in 1998 the project would be delayed so the Indiana Department of Transportation could work on a new plan for the Federal Highway Administration that would include the possibility of routing I-69 through Terre Haute.

But local leaders wanted the new-terrain route. Twenty-two Indiana mayors, including John Fernandez of Bloomington, signed a petition that was given to Gov. Frank O’Bannon in July 1999. Later that year, Bernardin Lochmueller and Associates was awarded a $7.7 million contract to spend two years preparing an environmental impact study on the proposed highway, including the U.S. 41/Interstate 70 alternative that went through Terre Haute.

In 2000, state Department of Transportation officials released 14 possible routes for I-69 in southwestern Indiana. Two years later, the U.S. Department of the Interior officially backed the U.S. 41/I-70 route as “the most environmentally preferable” route for I-69.

Indiana DOT

Getty Images

During a campaign tour in 2003, Republican Mitch Daniels said, in reference to I-69, he would be the governor “who builds this road and puts an end to the study and the political football.” Later, he officially advocated for what was being referred to as the direct route for I-69 in southwestern Indiana, and said the highway should be a priority for the state.

Daniels was sworn in as Indiana governor on Jan. 10, 2005. Later that year, he said construction of I-69 could begin by 2008 and finish by 2018, if state lawmakers would agree to build the highway as a toll road and possibly lease it to a private company.

A private company offered Indiana $3.85 billion to operate the Indiana Toll Road in the far northern part of the state in January 2006. This would provide enough money for all transportation projects for the next 10 years, including the I-69 extension to Evansville. At the time, Daniels said he still wanted I-69 to be a toll road.

In March 2006, Indiana House and Senate negotiators reached a deal on Daniels’ proposed highway plan. They would allow a 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road and were open to the possibility that I-69 in southwestern Indiana would be a toll road.

Environmental groups and several business owners filed a federal lawsuit in October 2006 to block design and planning of the Evansville-to-Indianapolis leg of I-69, claiming the Department of Transportation ignored harmful environmental impacts. A year later, a judge would rule in favor of the state DOT.

Daniels eventually changed course, saying in late 2006 there would be no tolls on I-69 in southwestern Indiana. He instead proposed a series of tollways in Indianapolis suburbs to help pay for the highway, a plan that eventually met defeat in the Indiana Legislature.

Indiana lawmakers approved in April 2007 a state budget that included $119 million for the construction of I-69 from Evansville to Naval Surface Activity Crane.

Construction of I-69 Section 1, a 13-mile stretch from Evansville to Oakland City, began in 2008. A year later, the first two miles of new I-69 opened between Interstate 64 and Ind. 68.

The federal government approved the route for Section 2 in April 2010. This 29-mile section stretches from Oakland City to Washington, Ind. Work began later that year.

Work on the 25 miles of Section 3 began in the summer of 2010. This section extended I-69 from U.S. 50 to U.S. 231, near Crane.

Sections 1, 2 and 3 were fully opened to the public in November 2012. Earlier that year, work began on Section 4, a 27-mile stretch of new-terrain highway from Crane to Bloomington.

Section 4 originally was expected to be finished in 2014, but it didn’t open to traffic until December 2015. Department of Transportation officials blamed periods of exceptionally wet weather for the delays. Building a highway on new terrain required cutting down hills and filling in valleys to meet federal interstate grading standards.

Soil had to be stabilized before asphalt could be laid, but moisture prevented construction crews from properly compacting the dirt. The only thing crews could do was wait for Mother Nature to dry things out.

Section 5 primarily consisted of upgrading an existing four-lane state highway to interstate standards, but this portion of the project had its own challenges.

With money from the Indiana Toll Road lease exhausted, the state turned to a public-private partnership to finance Section 5. A group known as I-69 Development Partners won the contract to turn 21 miles of Indiana 37 from Bloomington to Martinsville into I-69.

Essentially, the deal was that I-69 Development Partners, formed specifically for Section 5 project, would secure its own funding for construction. The state would then make annual payments to I-69 Development Partners to operate and maintain that section of highway for 35 years after it was built.

I-69 Development Partners hired Isolux Corsan to design and build Section 5. But construction was delayed several times due to late payments from Isolux to subcontractors.

Bonds sold to finance the project were downgraded multiple times before the state officially took control of the project in August 2017.

In the fall of 2018, the Federal Highway Administration accepted I-69 Section 5 into the interstate highway inventory, nearly two years after I-69 Development Partners originally said the project would be finished.

In the summer of 2018, it still was unclear how Section 6 would be financed. At that time, department of transportation officials expected Section 6 to be finished in 2027, but funding had only been allocated through 2022. But once again, an Indiana governor used the lease of a toll road to pay for I-69 construction.

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s administration renegotiated the Indiana Toll Road lease, securing $1 billion in proceeds for the state. Holcomb plans to use $600 million of that money to speed up the completion of Section 6.

The latest schedule, presented at a public meeting Oct. 21, shows Section 6 construction finishing in 2024.

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