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Bloomington Bulldozer: Indiana DOT Shoves I-69 Down College Town's Throat

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2010-11-07-PedalPower.jpg

Hauling freight, Bloomington style. Photo by author.

Two visions of the future collided on the doorstep of my Indiana town, Bloomington, this past week. Imagine one as a bicycle rider on a rails-to-trails bikeway, the other a semi-trailer truck hurtling down an interstate. Imagine which one came out the winner.

Nestled into rolling land an hour south of Indianapolis, Bloomington - home of Indiana University - has declared itself a Transition Town, on the road to a sustainable future. We have a Peak Oil Task Force, a Commission on Sustainability, an Environmental Commission, and a Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Commission. We have a volunteer-run Center for Sustainable Living with green transportation, garden, building, and energy projects. We have three co-op grocery stores, a Local Growers Guild, and a thriving farmers' market in summer and winter. We have bike and pedestrian paths, one of them right through the center of town.

What we do not have is an interstate highway.

The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) would like to give us one -- the Interstate 69 extension that would carry semis hurtling right past our town on their way to Mexico and Canada and points in between. A lot of us don't like that prospect.

In fact, a lot of us don't like the idea of I-69, anyhow, anywhere. In 2010, who needs a new interstate that will destroy farmland and forest, drive families out of their homes, threaten endangered species, take away funds that could be used to improve existing highways, use up oil, and contribute to climate change?

I-69 has been inching closer and closer, at least in our minds. Not much pavement has gone down yet, but the state has bought up property along the route to the south and handed out construction contracts right and left.

Still, suppose Bloomington dug in its heels and said No to I-69? Could we -- by golly -- bring this misguided highway project to a screeching stop?

Bloomington tried.

Both city and county governing bodies passed resolutions opposing the passage of I-69 through Monroe County. And when INDOT asked the local Metropolitan Planning Organization's Policy Committee to put our metropolitan area's stretch of I-69 into its federally mandated Transportation Improvement Program or "TIP," the MPO dragged its feet, consulted lawyers, and delayed.

The MPO had the law on its side: federal law established MPOs in part to minimize "transportation related fuel consumption and air pollution." Stopping I-69 would certainly do that.

And the MPO held the reins of power: it held purse strings. Without I-69 in the TIP, the state could not get federal funds for the section of the highway that would pass through the Bloomington metropolitan area, and in these hard economic times, INDOT needs all the federal funds it can get.

But INDOT holds purse strings of its own, and at last week's meeting in the renovated furniture factory that serves as our city hall, an INDOT official told the MPO what the state would do to Bloomington and Monroe County if we did not get on board. If our MPO did not amend its transportation plan to include I-69, the state might just withhold discretionary funds that would otherwise go to projects that the city and county did want, said INDOT Deputy Director Sam Sarvis.

This sounded like bullying to Steve Bonchek, an educator sitting among the residents who had gathered to speak their minds on the issue. Taking his place at the mike, he told the MPO members, "It's difficult, scary, to stand up to bullies. The state is a 2,000-pound gorilla. I don't know what happens if you vote No but I encourage you to vote No."

A parade of citizens lined up to urge the Bloomington/Monroe County MPO to vote No to putting I-69 into the TIP.

They pointed out the foolishness of routing the highway through a fragile karst area full of sinkholes. They pointed out the inadequacies of the draft Environmental Impact Statement for this section of the highway -- its failure to mention protected birds like the cerulean warbler, its indifference to damage the highway would do to historically significant areas. They said INDOT could not pay for this highway and also repair and maintain the state's existing bridges and roads.

One of the few who spoke up in support of the highway was a National Guard officer who said it would help reach the southwestern part of the state in the event of a disaster.

To that, Monroe County resident Brian Garvey said, "You're talking about disasters in Indiana? Let's talk about the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of homes where people are being forced out, some of them centenary farms. So socially, culturally, economically, environmentally, this is a disaster. It's a disaster that has been perpetuated by political will in spite of the citizens."

Through a couple of decades fighting against this highway, many of the people in the room had sat in other hearings and watched other parades of opponents say "No" to the highway. Many had submitted a stream of comments on draft Environmental Impact Statements. Many had signed petition after petition -- all to no discernible effect. Now they were making the effort one more time, wondering, as one of them said, "Is democracy going to work or not?"

After nearly four hours, the amendment to place I-69 into the MPO's transportation plan moved toward a vote. MPO members summed up their concerns -- especially concerns that inadequate funding might leave the I-69 section from Bloomington to Indianapolis unbuilt or delayed. Then I-69 traffic from the south would pour onto our existing roads.

Long an opponent of Interstate 69, Mayor Mark Kruzan said that if he thought a No vote really would stop I-69, he would vote No. He did not believe that it would. He further believed that the state might not only cut funds to local transportation projects -- it might also cut funds to other services in the community. He did not believe this fund-cut would be necessarily short-lived.

On the other side, Andy Ruff, member of both the MPO Policy Committee and the City Council, plead passionately with his colleagues to vote "No."

"My own feeling is that this project, at this time in place in human history, is on a scale of wrongheadedness that is breathtaking." Pointing to recent news of dwindling oil reserves, he said, "We will be in a permanent decline of liquid fuels before I-69 can ever be done. I-69 has no future in a world of declining oil, and it's crazy in a world of human-induced climate change."

Three other members of the MPO joined Ruff to vote No. Nine voted Yes. Some of the Yes-sayers may really want this highway, imagining that it will expand the local economy. Others (voting "reluctantly") no doubt hoped that voting Yes would not only prevent the state from cutting off funds to other projects but would also give locals some control over design of an interstate that would be built through the county whatever they say.

Leaving the door to future opposition open a crack, the amendment the MPO passed will allow federal funds to be used for design and purchase of metro area property in the I-69 right of way -- but not for construction. If local officials aren't satisfied with the design, the MPO will have another chance to summon up the courage to say No.

I'm not holding my breath. From what I saw at our MPO meeting, I'm afraid former Energy Secretary James Schlesinger had it right when, in a recent speech mentioned by Andy Ruff, he wondered if the political order could face up to a future without abundant oil. "There is," he said, "no reason for optimism."

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