Photograph by Steven Higgs
Mayor Mark Kruzan says the State of Indiana can avoid damage from the proposed I-69 new-terrain route by not building it. Shown here at a City Council meeting, Kruzan spoke out against the highway at a March 13 meeting of the Bloomington-Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization.
If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, perhaps a 142-mile new terrain I-69 can be stopped with a small meeting. Rather, more accurately, a series of small meetings with big public input.
The Bloomington/Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Policy Committee recently conducted one such meeting. The hearing involved the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT), Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and local officials of the elected and appointed variety.
The March 13 meeting considered the future of the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).
By way of explanation, the MPO serves Bloomington, Ellettsville and Monroe County and includes IU and Bloomington Transit as planning partners. As required by federal law, the MPO is responsible for conducting transportation planning activities within our area.
The Policy Committee is the decision-making body for the MPO, approving all projects, plans and policies of the MPO. It consists of elected and appointed officials from the member jurisdictions and agencies.
The TIP is one of the products that the federal law requires an MPO to prepare at least every two years. The purpose of the TIP is to list transportation projects for which federal funding will be sought over three-year periods.
In an alphabet soup of acronyms, a small but significant victory was won for responsible and reasonable opposition to the proposed interstate.
INDOT asked the MPO to include an I-69-related property in the TIP so that the TIP would be in sync with INDOT and FHWA plans for the interstate. The MPO declined to do so by a vote of 9-3.
On the MPO agenda, the item for consideration simply read, “I-69 right-of-way acquisition at Tapp Road.” In full dimension, though, the small parcel (less than one acre) came to symbolize the first time locals were asked to formally recognize I-69 is a project, as they say, coming to a community near you.
The property in question is at State Road 37 & Tapp Road. The question before the committee was whether the TIP would acknowledge the land would be used as a part of the I-69 expansion.
Complicating consideration of the issue, the property was proposed as a “hardship acquisition.” The out-of-state owner is experiencing financial difficulties and has been unable to sell the property given its location in the proposed interstate corridor.
INDOT’s message was clear -- the unfortunate property owner would suffer should the MPO vote against the hardship acquisition.
Under fairly intense questioning, however, it became clear that wasn’t true. In fact, the state can -- and likely will -- purchase the property with funds out of a non-I-69 pool of money.
Perhaps out of politeness, perhaps due to obviousness, one unspoken reality is that the fate of the property owner is based not on our MPO vote but on the very promotion of I-69’s construction. And that’s a message we should be very unambiguous about at every step of the road, literally. The fault lies in the project, not in opposition to the project. Drop the project, you drop the damage.
Beyond the woeful tale of the homeowner, the FHWA added further implication and complication -- the fact that punitive measures could be taken against our community for failing to keep our TIP in “compliance” with the federal and state versions. Bottom line: Fail to stay in sync with us, and you risk losing future federal funding for even non-I-69-related projects.
In a cryptic comment, the FHWA spokesperson would only say, “We will, if necessary, send a letter to the committee on the consequences.”
While a mayor will likely find her or himself on the losing end of this argument, my position is that if the state and federal government wish local government to be in step with their planning documents, the best way to accomplish that goal is to eliminate I-69 from their plans.
On a personal note, the MPO vote was cathartic. I’ve only been in a position to take “official” action against I-69 on two occasions. First, I voted against a House Resolution supporting the project when I served in the state legislature. Second, as mayor, I signed the City Council Resolution opposing the proposed interstate. The MPO vote had more substance and impact.
I still do not believe that having I-69 bisect the community will bring the economic benefits promised by proponents. One needs only look to Northwest Indiana’s I-65, I-94, and I-80/94 or southern Indiana’s I-64, which reveals that interstates are not panaceas from economic erosion.
In fact, our comparative economic advantage in Bloomington is the unique quality of life, which makes this an attractive place to live, work, visit, study and invest. I-69 would undermine our existing strengths at great public expense during a time of scarce public resources.
A “no” vote by MPO may carry with it a cost in the form of federal funding cuts, but a “yes” vote would have furthered an I-69-caused erosion of community spirit and economy and carried with it a much greater moral and practical cost to the community.
Mark Kruzan is mayor of Bloomington. He can be reached at email@example.com.