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Road through Nowhere
The story of I-69
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
As anyone who's ever driven to Evansville will tell you, you can't get there from here. Located in the extreme southwest corner of the state, Evansville is the only major Indiana city that doesn't have a direct highway connection to the state capitol. The major interstate going through the city, 1-64, is an east-west thoroughfare that connects the city to Louisville and St. Louis, but as far as the rest of the state is concerned, Evansville has been ostracized. When you look at a highway map of Indiana, the tangle of interstates seems to resemble a large spider with one leg missing, the southwest leg.
I had to make a trip to Evansville last month and it was a grueling five-and-a-half-hour trip. Fort Wayne to Indy is fine, but then the fun begins: Indy to Bloomington, Bloomington to Bloomfield, pick up 57, go through Washington, Petersburg, Oakland City. You can take an alternate route via Terre Haute, but that always seemed insulting to my sense of expediency: go west to go south? Anyway, the state road, 57, is a two-laner, and if you get behind a slow-moving vehicle, forget it. The drive is hilly and the road winds significantly and there's always a slowdown when you approach a small town. No matter how fast you drive, no matter how many chances you take, you're still on an endless trip through some of the least charming small towns imaginable.
When I approached the 64/164 interchange, just outside of Evansville, I was surprised to see a familiar sight: the highway 69 sign, a sign I had seen when my trip began five hours earlier. I had vague memories about a plan to extend 1-69 through Evansville, but I was sure the project had been abandoned. Curious, I exited onto the brand new highway and drove the entire span, which took about ninety seconds. It seemed whimsical, capricious, to call that tiny blip of land a highway. When I got home I did some research and learned that the 1-69 project is very much alive, and that that 1.8 mile stretch represented the only completed part of the expansion in the state. After nearly 20 since inception, this very symbolic piece of freeway remains the only concrete evidence that the $3 billion dollar project will ever be completed.
In his recently released book, Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway, author Matt Dellinger explains that 1.8 miles, and, for that matter, everything else about the 1-69 expansion. The book is an exhaustingly researched, comprehensive look at the labyrinthine history of this major public project, a project that has been beset with constant, imposing battles since its initial proposal in the early 90's. The book calls itself an "unfinished history" and that's certainly accurate — despite the immense public and private energies devoted to the highway, the end remains a long way away. The current status in Indiana: the state has been buying parcels of land along the proposed route from homeowners, spending nearly $20 million in acquiring the 209 parcels, and hopes to have a significant amount of construction completed by 2012.
It may surprise a lot of Hoosiers to learn that Indiana isn't the only state involved in the expansion. The entire 1-69 project is a huge national endeavor that affects seven states and will eventually connect Canada to Mexico. What started out as a relatively modest, $3 billion dollar idea to connect Evansville to Indianapolis has evolved into a $300 billion national superhighway, the largest road project since the initial interstate system was completed.
An economist named David Reed came up with the idea to extend the highway to Mexico because, as he wryly noted, "Nobody gives a damn about Indiana." Reed had been hired to study economic conditions in Southern Indiana, and when local leaders asked his opinion about an Evansville-Indianapolis connection, he recommended that they set their sites a little higher. A highway going from Michigan to Texas would connect three major manufacturing and distribution centers — Indianapolis, Memphis, Houston — and would enliven the economic fortunes of dusty and dying small Southern towns. Politicians could be coaxed into going to bat for the project, to prove their dedication to their constituents' future. It would be far more likely, then, Reed concluded, to get approval for a mammoth project than merely a large one.
There are a lot of ironies in Dellinger's book, but Reed's perception is probably my favorite. It's like that joke from High Fidelity — you ask somebody to loan you a dollar, they refuse, so you ask for fifty grand instead. In the 1-69 story, though, the audacity paid off, and no matter how you feel about the expansion, it's hard not to be impressed by the sheer gall of the proposal.
In telling the story Dellinger uses a smart device — he takes the readers on a road trip, starting in Indiana and continuing throughout the proposed route, making stops along the way. It's a geographic approach, not a chronological one, and it might be the only way to relate such a difficult, spiderweb-like subject. Dellinger provides lot of local color and introduces a number of eccentric characters from small, forgotten towns that are hoping for an economic rebirth delivered by the new highway. (Interestingly, resistance to the project manifested itself primarily in Indiana. Most of the southern states — Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana — were enthusiastic supporters of the highway. In Texas, there was sharper division, but not on a level with Indiana's.) In examining the small towns along the way, Dellinger is able to put the highway in historical context, and you learn a great deal about the effect transportation systems have had on shaping the look of the nation. Dellinger references Nothing Like it in the World, Stephen Ambrose's book about the building of the trans-continental railroad, and it's easy to see that Dellinger is hoping the 1-69 story would be analogous: talk about transportation and you're actually talking about the people, the country, history.
Ultimately, though, the subject matter is just too cumbersome for any author to tackle, and after a gallant try, the sheer scope of the source material defeats the writer. The book is exceptionally well-written with many insights and well-drawn characters, but let's face it — this is a story of politicians and machinations, of funding questions and proposals, of alphabet-soup agencies and referendums. It's impossible not to get fatigued reading about the endless processes and setbacks. There is a vertiginous quality to government projects that dizzy the head and exhaust the heart, and I wonder if Dellinger began to rue his book proposal after a few tiresome years. It's a great reference book, and I'm glad I have it, but when I read in the "Acknowledgements" that it took Dellinger 8 years to report the story, my heart sank for the author. It must have felt like being released from prison when he finally finished.