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The Road to Nowhere

Outside the Box

photograph by Goldenberg | Dreamstime.com

On Christmas Day, the headline of 
The Commercial Appeal did not proclaim “joy to the world” or any other appropriate holiday message; rather it stated “Memphis – Kentucky I-69 Quietly Shelved.”

Particularly on that day, the announcement and accompanying article probably received little attention.

So, after 20 years of planning, design, and spending, the State of Tennessee has discontinued work on the 156-mile segment of I-69 stretching from Fulton, Kentucky, to DeSoto County, Mississippi.

The federal government simply has not provided the necessary funding to complete the work. It's disappointing because I-69 is the most important highway system to be constructed in the U.S. since the 47,000-mile Eisenhower Interstate Highway system was completed. It also has been the most controversial. I-69 currently consists of a continuous segment from Port Huron, Michigan, on the Canadian border to Indianapolis. The remaining parts of it, some completed but most not, are planned to extend southwest, through Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, to the Mexican border.

I-69 has been designated the NAFTA Highway since it would provide a direct connection between Canada and Mexico, thus facilitating trade contemplated by the expanded 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. The total project evolved from a national highway system designated in the Intermodal Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 and further defined in 1998 by the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century.

Matt Dellinger has written an entire book on the project, Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. Environmentalists have been adamant in their opposition, particularly in Indiana where the proposed route would run through farmland, forests, and protected wetlands.

A more significant issue has been the failure of Congress to provide a funding mechanism, leaving it to the states to fend for themselves. Even Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, the long-awaited bill signed into law last year, failed to provide any funding mechanisms. Congress has failed to deal with the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel since 1993; and while none of us want higher taxes, at some point, the bullet must be bitten and more funds recovered for highway construction. There are other important infrastructure issues in the country as well, and many industry watchers doubt that the $25 billion highway will ever be completed.

The State of Tennessee has already spent $200 million on the corridor, and TDOT estimates that another $1.5 billion to $2 billion would be necessary to complete the Tennessee portion of the project. For the state, it is a question of priorities; while you may disagree with the priorities, we just spent a whopping $753 million on a Nashville bypass. There is only so much in the highway coffers.

Congress needs to look back more than 50 years to when the Interstate Highway System was being planned. First a route was designated, then legislation was passed to authorize the building and provide a funding mechanism that aided the states in meeting their construction obligations under the plan. It took 35 years and $474 billion (in 2011 dollars), but it is now difficult to imagine what some of us remember: the U.S. without the interstate system.

I-69 is the most important project since that time. Not only would the corridor provide a valuable travel route and interstate highway service to many cities currently without it, it would strengthen the important $1 trillion in trade among the signers of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

I only hope some us live long enough to attend the ribbon cutting.

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