It's probably impudent beyond imagination but CIVITAS has to disagree with our gracious publisher and host over last week's piece entitled "It's about NAFTA, not NIMBY." In that piece, Bloomington Alternative editor and publisher Steven Higgs wrote an open letter to National Public Radio's Steven Inskeep regarding the latter's coverage of the national I-69 imbroglio.

In particular, Higgs sought to correct the perception that Inskeep's coverage might have left in the public's mind, namely of an over-simplified battle between the road builders and a small group of dedicated landowners fighting to keep their homes.

Higgs argued persuasively and accurately that I-69 is more than just "home town news" from a marginal Midwestern state (albeit a state and place for whom CIVITAS conducts this weekly labor of love) and we strongly agree. But he also argued that I-69 has a national dimension, a dimension which has spilled on the national stage over the past decade in the form of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and that that dimension is the more important of the two. And that's where we disagree.

A political answer in search of a public question

Like all of the flimsy justifications put up for it over the years, I-69 has never been about NAFTA any more than it's been about an "education highway," a "jobs engine," a talisman of "safety" or any of the manifold excuses thrown out by its proponents over the years. Since 1970, when the idea of an Evansville-to-Indy superhighway was first floated (and rejected), there's been an excuse-du-jour for every interminable highway resurrection-to-wooden-stake cycle.

In 1990, a wooden stake by the name of the Donohue study concluded that the highway was not economically justifiable. In doing so, it drove the highway down once again, but not for long. The highway's minions began resurrecting it in 1994 with the incantation that it would be a "NAFTA superhighway" and soon the vampire was again out of the crypt.

In 1997, the Christian Science Monitor picked up on I-69's resurrection and noted that the vampire this time seemed different from its earlier incarnations. The Monitor couldn't quite figure out how a failed regional plan was suddenly getting steam as a much more ambitious national plan. In Does the US Need a 'Superroad?' (7/16/97) the Monitor's Mark Clayton asked "[H]ow did [I-69] grow so long when the original plan was to build an I-69 extension between Indianapolis and Evansville?"

Clayton found his answer in the disarmingly candid retort of James Newland, then the executive director of something called the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition -- an amalgamation of trucking, construction, and finance interests slobbering at the public trough. Newland's answer, as taken from an October 1996 interview in the Philadelphia Inquirer, was as pragmatic as it was cynical:

"We found out quickly that Congress wasn't interested in a 175-mile highway connecting one town to another. The only way to get national attention was to create a coalition of states. That's how the I-69 idea grew beyond Evansville to Paducah, and Memphis, then to Shreveport, Houston, and Laredo."

But what was the glue that would hold that coalition of states together? After rummaging around in their bag of handy excuses, the Mid-Continent coalition found what they thought was the perfect adhesive: a little bottle of something called NAFTA.

A sugar substitute with a bad aftertaste

It may be hard to imagine today but there was a time when the term NAFTA didn't have an overwhelmingly negative connotation in Hoosiers' minds. There was a time before the factories closed and were replaced by strip malls, there was a time when tens of thousands of Hoosiers were working good-paying jobs instead of flipping burgers and cleaning slot machines, there was a time when the nation manufactured more than just urban sprawl and wars in distant lands over cheap gasoline. There was a time when NAFTA seemed like a good idea and a good excuse to build yet another highway in one of our nation's most paved states.

We say it often and we'll say it again: don't get us wrong. Dig deeply enough and you'll find a die-hard, cold-as-stone, free-market heart beating within CIVITAS. We're prepared to accept that, in the long run, free trade may be the tide that floats all boats and that, despite the NAFTA-initiated net loss of over 30,000 manufacturing jobs in the past decade, Indiana may eventually come out ahead in the game. But eventually is starting to look like a long time.

As John Maynard Keynes said in his famous retort to the free-market utopians who assured him that laissez-faire works in the long run: "in the long run, we're all dead." Things might improve by the time we're in our graves but most of us are interested in improving things a little sooner than that. Most of us will never live long enough to see the upside of NAFTA, if it ever does come. And that fact has begun the unraveling of the NAFTA-for-highway-highway-for-NAFTA façade.

We've got another excuse in here, somewhere

Today the situation with NAFTA is different. No state in the Union has heard Ross Perot's cranky "sucking sound" louder than Indiana. Adjusted for population, we've lost more jobs to "free-trade" than any other state, despite the fact that we already have more highways than nearly any other state. Those facts, coupled with last month's revelation that the brand-new I-69 route would actually end up being longer than the existing interstates between Indianapolis and Laredo, put the final kibosh on the NAFTA justification. For the ever-grappling boosters, it was time to dig once again into the excuse basket and find something new.

Except they didn't. If there's anything that exceeds the weaknesses of the highway swindlers' arguments it's their lack of imagination. Confronted with the wilting effectiveness of the "trade corridor" argument they simply turned the dial back ten years, repeated arguments made then, and hoped no one would notice. For example, in responding to the fact that I-69 not only parallels the existing Interstates between Indy and Laredo but that it's actually longer, the Bloomington Herald Times bleated:

"[T]he mindset here is that the only purpose of I-69 is to race semis from Lake Huron to the Rio Grande. But how about dramatically improving community-to-community transit ... such as between Evansville and Bloomington? (7/12/2003)"

Of course what the HT and the rest of the pro-highway amalgamation want us to forget is that they're the ones who created the mindset in the first place. It just happened to backfire on them. We'll quote James Newland once again: "We found out quickly that Congress wasn't interested in a 175-mile highway connecting one town to another. That's how the I-69 idea grew..."

It's just so easy

It's so easy to come up with solid arguments against the highway that CIVITAS often feels pangs of Protestant guilt when we do. Work shouldn't be this simple, should it?

If I-69 is really about employment and income, then why do INDOT's own studies indicate less than $80 per Hoosier family, per year, in additional income from the highway in 2025 (that's about $28 in today's dollars)?

If I-69 is really about safety, then why do INDOT's own optimistic studies indicate less than a 0.5% reduction in automotive accidents if it is built? Would two billion dollars spent on improving existing roads yield a much better return on investment?

If I-69 is really about education, then why not invest the cost of its construction in treasury bills and thus provide 10,000 new full scholarships for needy students, instead of just making an easier commute for a few?

If I-69 is really about improving poor freight service to Evansville, then why is there presently no premium on Evansville shipments? For example, both UPS and FEDEX charge the same to ship a package from San Francisco to Indianapolis as they do from San Francisco to Evansville. The free market does not perceive a lack of freight accessibility for Evansville. Why does the government?

If I-69 is really about a "modern" transportation system, then why are we investing in a petroleum-intensive mode when even the most optimistic Bush administration forecasts show permanent global petroleum production declines beginning in 2025, just as the highway comes online? In the past 25 years, the United States has gone from importing 30% of its transportation fuels to over 60% today. Is investing in staggeringly expensive transportation systems that completely depend on dwindling fuel stocks from nations utterly hostile to us really in our best, or smartest, interest? Are Hoosier leaders really that uncreative?

What it's really about

We wanted to make it clear that, for highway proponents, I-69 isn't really "about" anything, other than coming up with excuses for why it should be built despite the monumental indications to the contrary. I-69 isn't about transportation, it isn't about better freight service, it's not about NAFTA, it's not about education, it's not about efficiency, and it's not about safety. It's about I-69 itself.

It's nothing more than a means to its own, political, end.

This column is an excerpt from CIVITAS, a weekly column written by Gregory Travis that focuses on the economic and civic dimensions of local issues. It takes its name from a similar format column written by James Howard Kunstler.