We never know, from week to week, whether it's going to be feast or famine at CIVITAS. Because we write almost exclusively on events relating to local civic life, we're constantly at risk of having nothing of consequence on which to comment in a particular week. We're happy to report that this week wasn't one of those weeks.
This week, the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce's list of candidate non-sequiturs, the embarrassingly ill-argued Herald-Times guest editorial denouncing a "living wage," and today's HT gem "Have I-69 foes gone too far?"all conspired to create an environment so target-rich that we almost didn't know which to choose. In the end, we decided to take on yesterday's delightfully-titled editorial.
Have I-69 foes gone too far?
We immediately stiffened in our chair as we read the title of the editorial. While we can't imagine a more fiscally-reckless and myopic project than I-69, we also bristle at potentially counterproductive actions by the opponents of the highway. Were we about to read of an act of eco-terrorism? Had someone thrown a pie at Governor O'Bannon or perhaps toilet-papered Vi-69 Simpson's home?
No. What had the HT's editorial pants in a bunch was former Monroe County surveyor Kevin Enright's imperious release showing that, on a national scale, I-69 is completely redundant.
We realized that the editorial's title was a bit of Midwestern wordplay but nevertheless, it and the article's tone, conveyed a sense of vehemence not deserved by Mr. Enright's simple observation. Why so nasty then?
Apparently, it is one thing if idealistic and well-meaning people want to protest the environmental consequences of a highway. That's non-threatening. After all, this is Indiana where we think pavement is progress and environmental protests have never been taken seriously.
But concrete demonstrations of the highway's broken costs/benefits, transportation lunacy, and ultimate irrelevancy are out. Showing that the highway would not only end up paralleling existing interstates from Indianapolis to Laredo (as the HT's own front-page map showed last Wednesday) but that it would actually be longer than those existing interstates wasn't just unfair, it was actually going too far.
First they ignore you, then they make fun of you, then they attack you, then you win
The road's proponents have always scattered, with hands waving like cockroach antennae, whenever the blue light of reason and responsibility sweeps beneath the highway lobby's carpet. It's certainly no different with this latest outburst except for a discernible change in the timbre. Again, it is delicious that the highway proponents characterize the publication of well-reasoned and irrefutable facts, albeit facts contrary to their beliefs, as "going too far."
To be sure, it's a little cruel to fault them for being angry. After all, the proponent's stated reasons for the highway have changed so often that they must be dizzy-sick from the spin.
Remember when, back in the early 1990s, the highway was going to be our ticket to a bright NAFTA-illuminated future? Remember when its supporters called it the "NAFTA super-highway?" These days though, with Indiana leading the nation in both existing interstate miles and NAFTA job-loss, it's no longer politically correct to link the highway to the trade agreement. God forbid that the public realize that the same self-interests that sold them NAFTA almost a decade ago are now trying to sell them another highway using the same vague and flimsy pretenses.
And it stings even more when people like Mr. Enright show that not only does the nation already possess a NAFTA interstate between Indianapolis and Laredo (over which one hundred thousand Hoosier jobs have drained south since 1994), but that existing interstates are nearly a hundred miles shorter than the planned I-69-between the same two endpoints!
Ok, forget what we said about NAFTA, it's about, uhh, something else
As the editorial scolded, the highway isn't about NAFTA any more. In a statement that beautifully illustrates the confusion under which the highway proponents labor, the HT now says the highway is not about international trade but about "dramatically improving community-to-community transit within the states it crosses, such as between Evansville and Bloomington."
CIVITAS took a road trip from Bloomington to the Evansville area just last week. We don't remember crossing any state boundaries. Furthermore, outside of Indiana, the proposed I-69 almost perfectly parallels existing interstate highways. How can a redundant road dramatically improve anything?
The editorial's response is that even redundant roads are talismans of economic prosperity - despite the lack of any evidence for such within our own state - thus a new-terrain route through southern Indiana is justified in its own right. What's the recipe for that right? Take a pinch of intangible but emotionally manipulative safety platitudes, stir in some plastic concern for the economically distressed, and bring to a boil of righteous indignation. Wave hands during a 15-minute simmer and wash any remaining reality out of the mix with water. Makes: sufficient quantities to keep people eating, not talking.
Finally, the conservative party starts to act conservatively
The paper believes that it has somehow "outed" anti-highway factions by exposing an imagined contradiction between their favoring the US-41/I-70 route (which is twelve miles longer within Indiana) and their criticizing a new national road. A road that is roughly one hundred miles longer, from Indy to Laredo, than existing roads.
Their argument goes that you can't argue for an existing, and shorter, national route while also arguing for an existing, albeit longer, statewide route. They also throw out the canard that only a new-terrain highway can help those people who live in one of the handful of Indiana counties not now served by multiple four-lane highways. And they never mention the most serious and cost-effective alternative proposed by opponents: no-build.
Of course their argument is bogus. What's inherently less virtuous about spending money on existing highways, to improve their function, vs. spending money on new highways? If the choice is between building an interstate that not only duplicates existing interstates but is longer than them vs. no-build, then is there any argument at all?
What connection can there possibly be between locally advocating that I-69 either not be built, or be built to utilize existing roads in Indiana, and observing that, nationally, the road is totally redundant? What's wrong with not serving those people in counties without interstates, if there are more people in economic distress in counties with interstates? After all, there are more people in economic distress from Terre Haute to Evansville along US-41 than in all of the new-terrain counties combined.
If his comments during a campaign stop are any indication, it looks like Republican Gubernatorial candidate Mitch Daniels is at least starting to play the part of a fiscal conservative. His remarks in Bloomington yesterday, namely that he is open to re-considering the highway and/or its route based on cost/benefit analysis, must greatly stress the highway boosters.
Perhaps that's the real source of the HT's vehemence?
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.