There will always be people who want to dam the Grand Canyon, divert the mighty Mississippi or use nuclear bombs to deepen a harbor or level a mountain. And there are people who see no end to the construction of transcontinental superhighways, like I-69. In opposition, there will be those who think these projects are bad ideas. How we decide these issues will depend, to a great extent, on the process that is used. Author Matt Dellinger’s Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway lays out the process by which I-69 became the last great American highway, or how it didn’t.
Dellinger’s history of the I-69 project sprawls from Canada to Mexico, from the late 1980s to the present. He takes an objective look at both sides of the issue with detailed characterization of many of the main players. It took him eight years and thousands of miles of travel from Michigan to Texas and interviews with average citizens, politicians, lobbyists, promoters and opponents of I-69 to compile this story of a dream highway and the nightmare behind that dream.
By Matt Dellinger
Published by Scribner
Book release date: Aug. 24, 2010
Early in the book, Dellinger states that transportation planning has never been a democratic process: “If there is truly such a thing as democratic transportation planning, then the Eastern American bison were probably the first -- and last -- practitioners,” he wrote.
We may not like it, but that’s the way it is. This conforms accurately with our own experience in navigating the long, tortuous process to decide the fate of I-69.
"The extension of the I-69 highway, now planned to span the continent, was conceived of and promoted by a small group of men in Indiana with big ideas."
The extension of the I-69 highway, now planned to span the continent, was conceived of and promoted by a small group of men in Indiana with big ideas. Though it started small, it grew as it gained political support. These few people conceived of the idea, marketed it to others, hired the lobbyists and bought the political support it needed to keep it alive. Finding the money to build it has not been easy for the promoters, but they keep trying. Republican Governor Mitch Daniels has primed the funding by leasing the Northern Indiana Toll Road to a foreign consortium for 75 years and dedicating $700 million of the lease payment to I-69.
Interstate 69 exposes how the highway promoters operate behind closed doors, how they can sneak into a huge Congressional bill a line that funds another study for I-69 or includes it in another federal program. The corrupt nature of the process is laid bare without calling it corrupt; this is just the way it works. In its own, understated way, the book cries out for reform of the process -- a contorted, undemocratic process that brought onto the national stage the idea of another superhighway after the interstate system was declared to be complete.
Dellinger’s interviews with the early promoters of the I-69 project are especially insightful. We learn that many of these are rich, old men who once wielded a lot of power but could see their influence waning as they got older. They were raised on the concept of highways as economic saviors, and they are evangelists for that vision of the world. Their vision includes their own legacy. I-69 would be the last big thing they would do. They base their hopes of a legacy on the past without imagining a changing future. Big-idea people often overlook problematic details and the impact of their vision on average people, as well as on other, wider issues, such as the energy debate and global climate change.
We are brought up to date with one of these pioneers of I-69, David Graham, who has since left his home in Southwest Indiana. He now lives in Florida, drives around a retirement enclave in a golf cart and talks about the importance of railroads. Of course, he still wants to see I-69, his legacy, completed,
"We learn that many of these are rich, old men who once wielded a lot of power but could see their influence waning as they got older."
We also read of the consultants who do the studies, often with serious conflicts of interest, and the bureaucrats who carry out the design at the direction of politicians. And all through the process there is money, lots and lots of money spread around.
The extent of the opposition to I-69 in Texas is well covered. And although Dellinger spent many hours talking to the opponents of I-69 in Indiana and attending their meetings and rallies, the breadth and depth of the opposition to I-69 in Indiana needs more emphasis. Despite this shortcoming, it will be clear to anyone reading the book that there is, and has always been, tremendous opposition for many reasons by a very wide spectrum of people -- an unprecedented coalition of citizens.
The Hoosier Environmental Council has been the Citzens for Appropriate Rural Road’s (CARR) partner since 1991. Many of the 140,000 petition signatures against the new terrain highway and in favor of the Common Sense Alternative were collected by the HEC door-to-door canvass. Protect Our Woods, the Environmental Law and Policy Center of the Midwest, the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations, Center for Sustainable Living, the Sierra Club, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Friends of the Earth, InPIRG, the Hoosier Audubon Council, the Terre Haute and Vincennes Chambers of Commerce, and many others. All played important roles at various stages of the I-69 struggle. The vision and dedication of the CARR Steering Committee continues to be the heart and soul of this long, long effort.
The Gibson County and Daviess County Farm Bureaus and the Daviess County Cattlemen’s Association passed resolutions against the new-terrain I-69. The Amish community in Daviess County sent a letter signed by 700 of their members to Democratic Governor Frank O’Bannon. At one point our opponents list contained the names of a wide range of elected officials, newspapers and periodicals, economic development groups, labor unions and various other organizations.
"Unfortunately, many of those who opposed the extension of I-69 must go unnamed. The fear of retaliation is real and widespread."
Unfortunately, many of those who opposed the extension of I-69 must go unnamed. The fear of retaliation is real and widespread. If you work in state government or other agencies and oppose I-69, you may be told to shut up or be fired. Other professionals fear losing funding for projects they work on. INDOT and FHWA have threatened to withhold transportation funding from Bloomington and Monroe County if I-69 is not included in their Transportation Improvement Plan.
Some may criticize Dellinger for not taking a stand, one way or the other, on this highway project. However, I am satisfied to know who my opponents are, how they think and how they operate. This book helped me understand those people in greater detail. It is important to know that some of the folks in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee truly believe in highways as economic saviors. I, and many others, think they are deluded, but it is valuable for me to know that they believe in, and are devoted to, their cause.
The book also gives insight into the cynical, greedy people and the corrupt politicians who exploit the false promises of the highway god. The conclusions to be drawn from this book should be obvious to all who read it with an open mind. It is a work of great importance for our changing times.
In numerous areas of public policy, Indiana is typically 10 years behind other states. That is the case with I-69. Many other states have awakened to the necessity of public transit and rail for the future. In Indiana, many people, including those who know better, still promote highways, and only highways, as economic saviors. Trying to convince the true highway believers otherwise is like trying to convince a devout Catholic that the Pope is not infallible. And cynical politicians, road builders and consultants who work for money and power often exploit the true believers for personal profit.
Dellinger addresses in some detail the current problem of highway funding. From the gas tax to tolling and privatization to pay-by-the-mile, highway funding is a hot topic in Washington seats of power. This is an area in transition and it is hard to see where it is going, except that it is going to change. Interstate 69 brings the reader up-to-date on the latest thinking among transportation advocates of all persuasions. One example is given from an I-69 supporter in Texas:
"I am satisfied to know who my opponents are, how they think and how they operate. This book helped me understand those people in greater detail."
Mr. Ric Williamson, past chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, stated: “There is no money to do any of these big transportation corridors that Congress, in its wisdom, says it’s gonna build. The governor believes that some of these corridors ‘need’ to be built -- whether Congress eventually pays for it or individual states pay for it or, in the case of Texas, we turn to the private sector and say, ‘Be our partners’. Otherwise, the hollow promise of money to build I-69 will never be fulfilled. The governor knows that there is no pot of gold in Washington. There is no federal road fairy.”(emphasis added)
The funding issue is especially relevant now that the federal transportation bill is up for renewal this year.
Interstate 69 is engrossing for the reality it exposes. The scope and depth of the book will put the full story of I-69 into perspective for those less intimately involved. Overall, Interstate 69 contains valuable insight and is an important addition to the growing literature on transportation issues. The future of transportation will not be a repeat of the past. This book lays out the past for all to see. Where we go from here is up to all of us. I feel strongly that it is time to finally bring democratic principles to the debate on our transportation future, something this book clearly shows has been missing.
Dellinger’s book comes on the heels of Steven Higgs’ book Twenty Years of Crimes Against Democracy: A Grassroots History of the I-69/NAFTA Highway. Together, these books put the I-69 story into the proper perspective within the history of transportation in this country. Whether or not I-69 will be completed, whether or not it will be the last such highway, remains to be seen.
The outcome of I-69 will tell us if the truth is mightier than dollar bills, political heavyweights, obsolete thinking, biased studies, negligent oversight agencies and backroom deals. The current system of transportation planning is, without doubt, broken. If it is not fixed, we will continue to suffer the consequences of a confused and out-of-date process that makes us all victims of highway robbery.
Thomas Tokarski is a local poet and board member of the Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads. He can be reached at email@example.com.