The "new terrain" debate is perhaps most prominent in Indiana, but it has cropped up elsewhere: farmers in Mississippi are concerned about access to their property along an upgraded U.S. 61, while engineers in Kentucky are examining how expensive upgrading highways designed 40 years ago will be--highways that, when built, were indistinguishable from the Interstates of their era. Meanwhile, in Texas, most observers expected I-69 to follow existing U.S. 59, 77 and 281, but that was before the Trans Texas Corridor proposal surfaced with its plans of a new terrain freeway network roughly along the same corridors.
The big question in all of these cases is is new terrain worth it? The flip-side of that question is: when is "old" terrain not worth it? Largely, this boils down to a small number of questions:
Can new terrain serve additional communities?
At least in Indiana, the answer is a clear yes: Bloomington, Martinsville, and Washington all could benefit from direct access to both Evansville and Indianapolis. In Kentucky, too, there is a case for access to Marion and Morganfield (although there are already plans for four-laning of existing highways like U.S. 60 and U.S. 641). In Mississippi, the only major community bypassed by I-69 in the Delta is Rosedale (where, again, there are plans for a four-lane MS 8 underway). In Texas, new terrain wouldn't serve any new communities, as U.S. 59, 77, and 281 are mostly direct, straight-line routes.
Does "old" terrain bring benefits to the existing corridor?
In Indiana, the only major benefit is a southeastern bypass of Terre Haute that is planned to be built regardless; the remainder of the corridor is not congested, and almost all towns are bypassed. Raising the speed limit on U.S. 41 (and other rural four-lane highways in Indiana) would bring most of the benefits of reconstruction as I-69, which will involve tearing the road out and starting from scratch, for about $900 million less. (The cost savings are largely due to the shorter distance to I-70, not because U.S. 41 is better suited to upgrading than other routes like SR 57 or SR 37.)
In Kentucky, too, the incremental benefits of an "old" terrain route are small; but the upgrade costs are likely to be small as well; unlike U.S. 41 in Indiana, there are no multi-million interchanges to be built (except a possible reconstruction of the Breathitt/Ford interchange near Madisonville to better accomodate through traffic), and there is no need for frontage roads or additional right-of-way. At worst, median barriers will need to be installed, shoulders will need to be repaired, some ramps will need lengthening, and some bridges will need to be raised (or the road will need to be lowered). While detailed cost estimates have yet to be prepared, the expense is likely to be less than $1 million/mile (as opposed to U.S. 41 upgrades, likely to be over $10 million/mile).
The benefits of following U.S. 61 in Mississippi are more widespread, including the construction of needed bypasses of Robinsonville, Tunica and Cleveland, and an interchange at U.S. 49 near the Helena Bridge. U.S. 61 is already designed as a modern high-speed roadway (unlike U.S. 41 in Indiana, designed for 55 mph), so upgrades to other sections are a matter of paving shoulders, building overpasses and frontage roads, and closing off cross-traffic.
In Texas, the routes that I-69 would follow in some places are designed for construction of a freeway in the median; in these areas, "new terrain" makes little sense. This will have to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Would the "old terrain" route make sense without I-69? Or, to put it another way, would the route even be considered for upgrades without I-69 coming through?
In Indiana, except for the Terre Haute bypass (SR 641), there have been no serious plans for improvements between Terre Haute and Evansville, as the existing road serves current and future demand. (By contrast, another "old" terrain route being considered for upgrades as part of I-69, SR 37 between Bloomington and Indianapolis, carries much more traffic and has seen numerous spot upgrades in line with eventual freeway conversion.)
In Kentucky, spot upgrades of the parkway system to modern standards already are taking place, suggesting that the eventual plan is to "fix" the entire system to modern standards.
In Mississippi, U.S. 61 freeway bypasses of Tunica, Robinsonville and Cleveland would be necessary in the next 20 years, and an interchange at U.S. 49 near Helena would likely have been built as part of the U.S. 49 four-lane project planned around 2010. The remainder of the route, however, would suffice without upgrades.
High volumes of traffic along the I-69 corridors in Texas suggest that freeway upgrades would be likely regardless of whether I-69 was planned or not.
So, where does that leave "old" and "new" terrain? It's clear that supporters of an "old terrain" upgrade of U.S. 41 mostly view it as a "compromise" (and their spokesmen have said as much); in their view, the interstate is a waste of money wherever it goes, and they would most likely wiggle out of that "compromise" if it were adopted by the state.
From the standpoint of value for money, "old terrain" can only win if the existing route is easily upgraded (as in Kentucky) or there are no benefits to adopting a new terrain route (as in Mississippi). In Indiana, neither is the case: upgrading U.S. 41 does virtually nothing to improve the transportation system of southwest Indiana, it is not an inexpensive proposition, and it is ultimately unnecessary.
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