Opponents of Interstate 69 erupted in cheers and applause when Mayor Mark Kruzan and the Bloomington/Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee (MPO) on May 13 voted to exclude I-69 in its Transportation Improvement Program for fiscal years 2012–15.
The 8-to-3 vote followed several hours of intense testimony from the public in opposition to I-69. The move includes section 4, which would bisect Monroe County.
“There comes a time when you stand up to a bully,” City Council member Andy Ruff said. “It is time to stand up for ourselves. It is time to stop the bully from adding I-69 to his political trophy case.”
Kruzan voted for exclusion, reversing his vote from last November, when the MPO voted to include I-69.
Joining Ruff and the mayor in opposition were Monroe County Commissioner Mark Stoops, Monroe County Council member Julie Thomas, Kent McDaniel from the Bloomington Public Transportation Corp., Jack Baker from the Bloomington Plan Commission, Dan Swafford from the Ellettsville Town Council and Patrick Murray from the MPO Citizens Advisory Committee.
Last November’s vote to include I-69 followed blackmail threats from the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to withhold other state and federal funds from Bloomington and Monroe County in retaliation. MPOs were created to coordinate transportation planning at the federal, state and local levels. If the local and state plans do not match, federal funds can be withheld until an MPO either comes into compliance or is re-certified.
"It is time to stand up for ourselves. It is time to stop the bully from adding I-69 to his political trophy case." - Andy Ruff, Bloomington City Council
State highway officials last fall also warned that Gov. Mitch Daniels had the legal authority to assume responsibility for transportation projects in Bloomington if the MPO denied I-69 in its plan.
INDOT Deputy Commissioner Sam Sarvis told the Bloomington Herald-Times after the latest vote that he had not anticipated the MPO not including I-69 in its plan.
“I haven’t talked to anyone about the consequences of the action,” Sarvis said. “(INDOT) would take a serious look at all discretionary funding within the MPO area.”
The mayor and MPO’s action follows intense lobbying and legal threats from the opposition in what is being called the New Phase Campaign, which was inaugurated May 5 at the Monroe County Public Library.
Chris Doran, member of the I-69 Accountability Project and moderator of a panel discussion opened the meeting, “There’s been a lot of activity around I-69. We’ve had some good news lately, but of course the best news is that everyone sitting up here tonight is not only working to stop the highway but is convinced that we can do so.”
The purpose of the May 5 meeting, Doran said, was “reaching, not preaching, to the converted because we need help” with three areas:
Reaching out to the mainstream media to make I-69 a national issue, particularly since Daniels is the primary advocate for the highway and is considering running for president; Outreach to the federal government; and Fundraising: the organizations are looking for creative ways to raise the $48,000 they need for legal fees.
The organizations sponsoring the meeting, the I-69 Accountability Project and Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR), also need help with two Web sites, one of which, I69whistleblower.org is a confidential, legally protected site on which INDOT employees, contractors, landowners and public officials can leave information on illegal, unethical or wasteful activities surrounding construction of the road.
Doran said the highway is “the biggest boondoggle in the United States.”
Built in six sections, the new highway would run from Evansville to Indianapolis. Sections !-3 would go from I-64 to US 231 near Crane. Section 4 would run from there to SR 37 just south of Bloomington. Sections 5 and 6 would complete the route to I-465 in Indianapolis.
Section 4 has not yet been approved and can be prevented from being built, according to Doran, with litigation. The organizations think the Endangered Species Act can halt work on sections 1–3, also through litigation.
For construction of the highway, the state has $700 million from leasing the Indiana toll road, Doran said, but has no source of funding for the whole highway. INDOT claims that the total cost of the highway would be $3.3 billion, but activists estimate it to be about $4 billion, with cost overruns, consultants’ fees, project management and myriad other costs that INDOT hasn’t accounted for in its cost calculations.
The highway, Doran said, is “way, way over budget.”
Doran said INDOT wants to obtain the remaining funding through gas taxes. However, he said, gas taxes are declining and won’t make up the difference. Even regional mainstream newspapers, which have boosted the highway since it was first proposed, have noted that, according to Bloomington’s Herald-Times, the funding for I-69 is “in limbo.”
Sections 4–6, Doran said, shouldn’t be approved because the funding doesn’t exist. According to the law, a highway can’t be built unless it’s “fiscally constrained,” or has enough of an allotment to be built.
INDOT is constructing the highway in distinct sections, Doran said, so when the agency runs out of money, it can request more from the state legislature to complete the road.
A key issue in the state is cuts and delays for maintenance and repair of existing roads and bridges: they aren’t being done. As things stand, Doran said, 20 percent of the transportation monies INDOT obtains from the federal government for fixing current roads and bridges would be diverted to I-69.
"It’s an absolute absurdity that we have crumbling roads all around us and plan to spend billions” on I-69." - Sam Allison, Monroe County CouncilIn some Indiana counties 50 percent of the bridges are on the federal list of “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient” bridges, according to Sam Allison, from the Monroe County Council and CARR.
INDOT has slashed the funding for an upgrade of State Road 41 in Evansville from $30 million to $13 million, according to Allison.
“It’s an absolute absurdity,” he said, “that we have crumbling roads all around us and plan to spend billions on I-69."
Allison said activists have identified counties with “problematic” bridges, targeting six for a letter informing their MPOs, mayors, city councils, county councils, county commissioners, Chambers of Commerce, senators and representatives that funding for their road projects will be cut to pay for I-69.
Allison said he would be happy to talk to county officials around the state about I-69.
At a public meeting Daniels told INDOT to “throw away the rulebook when it comes to I-69,” and the ageny is following his orders, said Tom Tokarski, from CARR. It isn’t following the proper procedures and probably is violating state and federal laws, he said.
CARR, the Accountability Project and some landowners along the route are challenging INDOT legally. Also, CARR and the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) have filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers for issuing permits without following the required procedures.
INDOT regularly intimidates landowners, Tokarski said, relying on the fact that homeowners haven’t dealt with the issue before and don’t know what the proper procedures are. The agency informs them incorrectly that it has the legal right to enter their property for core drilling and surveying.
"There’s a large number of endangered species along the route that are severely threatened by I-69." - Alex Smith, I-69 Accountability Project
INDOT has no such legal right, he said. If property owners say “No” to INDOT’s requests to come on their property, the agency will “back off,” Tokarski said.
INDOT is telling landowners to clear their land of marketable timber and that the agency won’t pay for it. That’s not true: INDOT has a legal responsibility to pay property owners the fair market value of their timber, according to Tokarski.
“INDOT is pushing very, very hard to get as far as they can with [section 4) as quickly as they can because they know they’re going to have trouble” with opposition from Bloomington, said Tokarski.
INDOT is working on section 4 way ahead of schedule, he said. It hasn’t provided an environmental impact study or received a record of decision from the federal government.
“They’re not supposed to be doing the final design at this point, but they’re doing it,” Tokarski said.
Bill Boyd owns property in both Greene and Marion counties along the I-69 route. A member of CARR and HEC, he echoed Tokarski, saying if INDOT wants permission to come on your property, “Just say no,” and write the agency a polite letter indicating that it can’t have it.
He recommended that homeowners take photographs of the contractors on their land to document INDOT’s activities.
The idea, Boyd said, is to “[make] it hard for INDOT to get anything done” on section 4.
Speaking of his own property, Boyd said, “So far we’ve held [INDOT] off.” If citizens can halt the highway through litigation, “it will be very difficult to get going again.”
”You have to protect what you own,” he said. “This is still America. We have to do what we feel is the right thing.”
Alex Smith, from the Accountability Project, has been working on environmental issues and landowner outreach. He is among the activists who sent a letter to about 250 homeowners informing them of their legal rights and dispelling INDOT’s misinformation.
"You have to protect what you own. This is still America. We have to do what we feel is the right thing." - Bill Boyd, landowner
For example, INDOT isn’t permitted to log during the endangered Indiana bat’s summer nesting period. The agency is skirting the law by telling property owners they have to log their land privately before INDOT works on it. That way the agency also avoids compensating landowners the full value of their property, including marketable timber.
INDOT, Smith said, “is doing fine if everything goes their way and everybody cooperates.” Contesting INDOT’s actions, he said, affects all the properties involved by costing INDOT money and makes it less likely that the highway will be built. He requested feedback from citizens whom INDOT has contacted.
“There’s a large number of endangered species along the route that are severely threatened by I-69,” he said, and INDOT hasn’t taken into account in its environmental impact studies for section 4. Those species, he said, “are not getting the protection they deserve.” As a result, INDOT could have “another lawsuit on their hands.”
Linda Greene can be reached at email@example.com.