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State assesses impact of Monroe County vote against I-69 extension

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — State highway officials are trying to sort out the impact of a Monroe County panel’s decision not to include part of the contentious Indianapolis-to-Evansville Interstate 69 extension in its local highway plan — a move that may jeopardize federal funding for part of the project.

Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield said the decision from the policy committee of the Bloomington/Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization is “highly unusual.” He said transportation officials haven’t determined what the committee’s exclusion of a section of the I-69 project in Monroe County will mean for the $3 billion project.

In particular, Wingfield said it’s unclear if the state can use federal funding without the local Metropolitan Planning Organization’s backing for that portion of the highway, a $400 million, 27-mile stretch that would run from the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center to Bloomington.

“We don’t have a whole lot of precedent here to say what is and what isn’t possible,” Wingfield told The Indianapolis Star.

INDOT plans to take about three weeks to review the local planning organization or MPO’s transportation plan and then decide how to proceed.

Gov. Mitch Daniels has made the 142-mile extension of I-69 one of his cornerstone projects. National advocates say it could lead to the opening of trade routes from Mexico to Canada, while local supporters believe it will spur development and create access to the southwest corner of the state.

But the project has long drawn bitter criticism for its cost and environmental impact, particularly in Monroe and Greene counties.

In last Friday’s vote, the Bloomington/Monroe County MPO cited environmental and fiscal concerns in its decision to exclude I-69 from its plan. Officials with the planning organization say they want more information before signing off on the project.

The state needs to provide data on financing, said Bloomington Planning Director and MPO representative Tom Micuda. He said the group also wants data on the highway’s impact on air and water quality.

“While there is a long-standing history of opposition to the I-69 extension in the Bloomington community, there also is an understanding that if more issues get defined on Interstate 69, then INDOT can come back to the MPO for consideration,” he said.

Wingfield said the Department of Transportation already has provided information and has been working with the MPO for months.

Tom Tokarski, president of Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, has opposed the I-69 project for more than 20 years and intends to keep on working against the highway.

“It’s environmentally, fiscally and socially irresponsible,” he said. “It’s hugely expensive, and I don’t think they have enough money.”

Supporters of the highway, including Steve Schaefer of Hoosier Voices for I-69, want the state to push forward anyway.

“For Bloomington to continue to play games and try to halt the process on this project is unfortunate, when you have smaller communities across southwest Indiana that have been begging for this project for decades,” Schaefer said.

Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said the I-69 extension is one of the most important projects in the state’s history. He called the local MPO’s decision “very unfortunate and shortsighted.”

“This is one of the most significant economic development projects in our lifetime, perhaps the biggest in the public sector,” Brinegar said.

The state chamber is among a long list of groups and politicians who support the project, including the Southwest Indiana, Greater Bloomington and Indianapolis chambers of commerce and mayors in Evansville, Loogootee, Petersburg and Washington.

Last May, Daniels ramped up the timetable for the I-69 extension to take advantage of cheaper costs in the down economy.

At the time, he said the portion from Evansville to Bloomington would be finished by the end of 2014. A two-mile section at Evansville already is open, and construction has begun on 65 miles from there to Crane, with completion expected by the end of 2012.

Work on the stretch from Crane to Bloomington is still set to begin late this year and to finish in 2014, but the local MPO’s actions now put that in question. The Bloomington-to-Indianapolis stretch doesn’t yet have a timeline or funding.

Posted 5/19/2011

 

 

 

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