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Column: New I-69 route benefits Indiana economically

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After years of work, Indiana is ready to open the first half of the Interstate 69 extension that’s slated to eventually run from the state’s southwestern corner to Indianapolis.

The Indiana Department of Transportation said that a 67-mile section of the highway from Evansville to near the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center will open Monday. That stretch is roughly the first half of the planned 142-mile stretch of highway, which was announced in early 2003.

INDOT said the section set to open will connect communities from just northeast of Evansville at Interstate 64 to the U.S. 231 interchange about 20 miles southwest of Bloomington. Construction began in 2008.

The I-69 project has been the subject of numerous lawsuits filed by environmentalists and others who supported an alternative proposal to upgrade existing highways. Opponents contend the highway will damage sensitive ecosystems and won’t live up to state officials’ claims of quicker travel times and an economic boost for the rural region.

In announcing the opening, Gov. Mitch Daniels said: “Many people said this interstate expansion wouldn’t happen in their lifetime, but it’s now poised to open and the result will be greater economic opportunity, faster and safer travel, improved connectivity, easier access for leisure travel and more.”

Money from leasing the Indiana Toll Road paid for most of the 67 miles of new highway, which cost $620 million — about $80 million under its construction budget, INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield said. He attributed those savings to good design and the nation’s weak economy, which lowered the highway’s construction costs.

Wingfield said the next section — a 27-mile stretch that will run from the Crane area to just south of Bloomington — is scheduled to open in late 2014. It’s projected to cost about $600 million and will cut across a wooded area with caves, springs and sinkholes. Environmentalists warn the area is highly sensitive and harbors populations of the federally endangered Indiana bat.

Wingfield said it’s uncertain when the final two sections — from Bloomington to Martinsville and Martinsville to Indianapolis — would be completed. Those segments remain in the design and environmental study phase. It also is unclear where the money to complete the project will come from.

The purpose of the project was to improve the connection between Indianapolis and the economic centers in Bloomington, Crane and Evansville. Traffic directly from Evansville to Indianapolis was incidental to this larger mission. Opening a major section of the state to improved transportation was the chief idea.

Running I-69 over Interstate 70 from Indianapolis to Terre Haute and then south on U.S. 41 would have been a wise move had the mission been solely to move traffic from the capital city to Evansville. But that wasn’t the purpose.

Economic development was behind the routing and, for that reason, the remainder of I-69 should be built.

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