Interstate Debate

An ambitious and much ballyhooed plan exists to connect Canada to Mexico with one single, nonstop interstate. Such an undertaking would boost the economy and pump millions of dollars of commerce into areas surrounding the major highway. A part of it already exists in northeast Indiana. It moves from Indianapolis toward Fort Wayne and pushes through Michigan and into Canada. South of Indianapolis, only a couple of miles of this interstate, I-69, is drivable. That trek connects to I-164, which loops around the eastern and southern portions of Evansville. More of this interstate is under construction, and by 2012, officials from the Indiana Department of Transportation expect crews to have completed 67 miles of the road (from Evansville to Crane, Ind.).

Beyond that, completion of the interstate looks a little more doubtful, thanks to a vocal opposition in Bloomington, Ind., who believe the interstate is bad for the community. Their complaints are numerous (I-69 will kill endangered species! I-69 will hurt my property value! I-69 will increase air pollution!), and this summer, they’ve sued the State of Indiana.

But not every Bloomington resident sees I-69 as a path of destruction, and recently, Charles Trzcinka, a finance professor at Indiana University, fired back. He wrote to the Bloomington newspaper asking for citizens to see the value in the interstate. The public’s response? Overwhelmingly positive, Trzcinka says. Bloomington isn’t a place filled with naysayers, he learned, and people want I-69. There’s just a minority making a lot of noise. Here, we asked Trzcinka to respond to I-69 critics.

Around the world, a good standard of living and elimination of poverty is based on the ability of people to exchange their goods and services. Increasing this ability makes people better off; decreasing it makes them worse off. This well-documented principle is the basis for connecting Evansville, Bloomington, and Indianapolis with I-69, but it is completely ignored by the opposition to this road here in Bloomington. Local politicians who form the Bloomington-Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization have excluded I-69 from its annual transportation plan. I-69 is well along in its construction between Evansville and Crane and will soon be moving toward Bloomington. For the highway to pass through the Bloomington area, the federal government requires that it must be part of Bloomington’s transportation plan. Now we have another lawsuit in federal court by the “Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads” attempting to re-route the road using a more western route.

The benefits of building this road through Bloomington are likely to be enormous. On a large scale, think of the payroll at IU and do a “back of the envelope” calculation. The 2011-2012 operating budget lists the total expenditures of IU Bloomington at just over $921 million. Suppose $600 million of this is for people and these people are only 5 percent more productive because of I-69. This means they will add $30 million a year to the economy because of the road. Since debt service costs less than this, Indiana will have a net gain.

Where does this productivity come from? For people who find transportation costs to be expensive, it will come from a better job search, increasing their opportunities and their wages. IU personnel managers are already expecting this wage increase. For others it will increase their ability to manage their time. A 5 percent increase in productivity looks low relative to places like the research triangle in North Carolina or Boston’s 128 beltway, and the estimate ignores the gain for people not on IU’s payroll.

The second large-scale gain will be an increase in real estate values. Urban economists find that transportation systems increase property values by providing more accessibility, which is a public benefit, while some property owners bear the negative effects of being close. (I am a property owner who experienced the decrease). A study of San Diego County shows residences located a mile or more away from the freeway command a $67,000 premium. Another study shows a 6 percent increase in value for I-90. The point is I-69 will likely increase the value of Southern Indiana property, and the closer to Indianapolis the bigger the gain. This will certainly mitigate losses in property taxes, and there may be a gain in municipal revenue.

Of course not all roads are beneficial, and it is easy to find expensive transportation projects that were a waste of money. Two examples are the freeway in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the subway in Buffalo, N.Y. But a highway that connects a major university with a state capital has a very good chance of success.
Then why does the planning committee, including Mayor Mark Kruzan, stand in the way? Bloomington council member Andy Ruff said there are “unresolved questions” on the road’s funding, the location of interchanges, and the environment. Funding I-69 is the state’s problem, which the state has repeatedly said they can handle. The state has a AAA bond rating and a billion dollar surplus. It is ludicrous to assert, as both the Bloomington council and the CARR lawsuit does, that because there is not currently an account with enough funds in it, the state doesn’t have the money.

Furthermore, why should this committee care at all about funding? Other “unresolved questions” bother this committee in spite of one of the most comprehensive environmental studies ever conducted. The questions will never be resolved and are a smokescreen for a “not-in-my-backyard” attitude and a practice of being against projects proposed by the governor. If successful, the committee will deny Southern Indiana the benefits of more timely access to Indianapolis and will hurt economic productivity, property values, and the ability to recruit new people to IU. Furthermore, given the clear benefits of going through Bloomington, the alternative route looks very expensive because it has none of these likely gains.

To the opponents of this route, I say please look at other parts of the country and what they have accomplished by making better connections between people. To INDOT officials who are “considering the options” after the Bloomington vote, I say you should continue the I-69 project over all local objections. INDOT cannot be governed by a noisy group of anti-growth activists. To people in Evansville, let me say that most of us here are looking forward to the closer connection.

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