Why Should I-69 Be Built? Why Shouldn't It?

Outside of Indiana, the debate about the merits of building I-69 hasn't been very intense. On one hand, Indiana's debate has very often been about the parochial interests of some people in the state versus others, rather than the merits of I-69 itself; that part of the debate does little to shed light on whether or not I-69 is needed or not. On the other hand, without debate and some sort of consensus in other states, I-69--if it is truly necessary--may lose out to other projects.

So here is a brief effort to discuss the pros and cons of I-69. I think that, on balance, the project can be justified as a reasonable use of federal and state highway user fees (the gasoline tax), but there are some important caveats.

In Favor of I-69

Economic Development: To the extent any motivation for I-69 has been expressed by politicians, economic development is most likely to be mentioned. While most of the major cities on the route were already served by the original Interstate system and more recent additions, many smaller communities along the I-69 corridor were bypassed by the original Interstate project.

Improved Travel Distances and Times: Travel between cities on the I-69 corridor today is often circuitous; for example, a trip to Memphis from Indianapolis on Interstate highways currently requires a detour via Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois, while travel from Memphis to Houston requires passing through Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I-69 would cut the corner on these routes and reduce travel distances and times substantially; it would also divert many medium-distance travellers from the overloaded airlines. (See the distances table below.)

Safer Travel: Existing roads in the corridor are generally rural and suburban roads, which often have accident rates several times higher than Interstate-grade highways. Even though building I-69 will increase traffic along the corridor, the total number of accidents is likely to decrease due to the better safety features of Interstate highways and better separation of local and long-distance travelers.

Better Use of Existing Roads: I-69's route incorporates a number of existing highways that are underutilized, which will lead to greater use of highways that taxpayers (and, in Kentucky, past tollpayers) have already invested in. For example, the current U.S. 51/Purchase Parkway corridor in western Tennessee and Kentucky includes over 100 miles of limited access highway, yet due to the lack of useful connections to the Interstate system to the north and south, and a small gap near Union City, it currently represents a wasted investment in quality roads.

Distances to Port Huron from Texas

City Current "best" route New "best" route (approx.)
Laredo 1705 mi 1656 mi
McAllen 1769 mi 1676 mi
Brownsville 1825 mi 1695 mi

"Best" routes follow as much of the Interstate system as possible. I-69 routes are estimated using current highways as close as possible to the I-69 alignment. Distances were calculated using RoutePlanner. (These distances were estimated before most of the extant enviornmental studies had been conducted.)

Another Perspective: The Enright Study

However, Kevin Enright claims the shortest possible I-69 route is 46 miles longer than the existing Interstates, assuming a start point of Laredo.

His study does not address start points of Brownsville or McAllen, which do not have existing connections to the Interstate system; nor does he look at the impact on travel from intermediate points on the route (for example, a Houston–Port Huron route). Enright also fails to account for TxDOT's position that the I-35 corridor is inadequate for existing traffic volumes and will require a parallel toll facility from Laredo to Dennison; the construction of I-69 would divert much of the through truck traffic away from this congested corridor.

Against I-69

Environmental Impacts: Building Interstate 69 will likely lead to adverse impacts on the environment, including air pollution, noise pollution, and the conversion of agricultural and forest land to highway use. At the very least, I-69 will divert existing environmental impacts to new areas; if it leads to increased vehicle travel, it may lead to greater net environmental impacts. However, I-69 may lead to more efficient use of natural resources due to shorter trips; in addition, freeway travel tends to be more fuel efficient than travel on existing suburban and rural roads in the corridor.

Secondary Development: The construction of I-69 will likely lead to building more services along the corridor, including truck stops, fast food restaurants, and hotels; near existing urban areas, I-69 may also promote expansion of urban areas along the I-69 corridor. While the economic benefits of this development to communities along the route may be substantial, it may lead to deterioration of the aesthetics along the corridor.

Pork-Barrel Spending: The I-69 project represents the expenditure of federal taxes on a project that has limited benefits outside the states where I-69 will be built. While most I-69 states have historically received less federal road money than their citizens contribute through the fuel excise tax, I-69 does represent a diversion of resources that could be spent on projects elsewhere or returned to taxpayers through lower fuel duties.

Back to I-69.

Chris Lawrence <i69@lordsutch.com> (11 Sep 2003 at 17:10 CDT)