“Jobs, jobs, jobs” – that’s the recurring refrain by I-69 proponents claiming that the interstate highway will bring economic development to Central and Southwest Indiana. But after nearly 21 years of opposing I-69, Thomas Tokarski says about that claim: “It’s bogus.”
“The myth of highways as economic saviors and bringers of jobs is very engrained in people’s minds. People don’t even question it anymore; they just assume that’s the case,” he says.
The reality is very different from the myth.
It is time for 17th Street to go on a diet. More than a decade ago, it served as a primary connection between Ellettsville and Bloomington. Accordingly, it was designed primarily for through traffic. It has wide car lanes, no sidewalks, inconsistent shoulders, intimidating and dangerous intersections, and a low level of commercial development.
Times have changed! Traffic has declined substantially. Dense residential developments are on both sides of 17th street. Thousands of students cross 17th street on foot each day. But the streetscape is still an uninviting nightmare for pedestrians.
A common question raised over the past 20 years about the I-69/NAFTA Highway has been, "Who's behind this multi-billion transfer of wealth to the politically connected elite?" Until just a few days ago, the answer among knowledgeable commoners had always been to state the obvious, "The Evansville power structure," which has lobbied for a straight-line route to Indianapolis since the 1960s.
A just-released book on the subject, however, drills the answer down to a specific name and face. And it will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Indiana politics that he was an aristocratic land baron with a 1920s view of the planet, whose personal family fortunes will swell to even greater enormity if and when the highway reaches his town.
“It is not too late!!! Ask for a redesign of this project!” Those were the messages 30 citizens with signs tried to convey to people driving on the SR 45/46 Bypass from 4 to 6 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 20, on the northeast corner of Fee Lane and the Bypass.
The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) has begun work on widening the bypass, over citizens’ objections for the last 20 years. The citizens claim that the bypass design is outmoded. It would encourage the use of more cars when, because of global climate change, we should be putting money into public transportation, not cars, one of the largest contributors to climate change.
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.
In 2008, Indiana citizens saved 11.7 million gallons of gasoline by riding transit in record numbers -- the amount consumed by 20,200 cars. Transportation is responsible for more than two-thirds of our dependence on oil, and about one-third of our carbon dioxide pollution Environment America outlined in a new report "Getting On Track: Record Transit Ridership Increases Energy Independence."
People are voting with their feet by driving less and taking more public transportation. Congress should listen to these voters and invest more in public transportation, which will increase our energy independence and reduce global warming pollution.
In Indiana, transit ridership increased by more than 9 percent above 2007 levels.
When the Bloomington City Council met in June 2008 to hear from citizens and Bloomington Hospital officials about the hospital's proposed move, Jim Allison suggested that moving the hospital from our center city to the county suburbs deserved to be in the Museum of Stupid Ideas. There it would join ideas that the citizens of Bloomington had thankfully not embraced, such as tearing down the Courthouse or moving the library to the suburbs. Well, I want to nominate the Indiana Department of Transportation's (INDOT) State Road 45/46 Bypass widening for inclusion in this pantheon of foolishness.
As for the museum, I want to curate this particular exhibit. At the center I shall have a squawking Chicken Little, predicting not only that the sky is falling, but also that, as Christy Gillenwater of the Bloomington Area Chamber of Commerce put it, "The Bypass expansion project is critical to the future of the community." Hearken, her right-hand man has warned without the widening, Bloomington commerce will suffer.
Let's throw in a few other dire predictions for good measure. IU's North Campus will be a disastrous failure without this proposed widening. Plus, in the words of Ron Walker, of the Bloomington Economic Development Corp. (BEDC), "Failure to move forward on the Bypass expansion could be a monumental setback for our community's economic development efforts."
Editor's note: The following Q&A presents unedited answers from Thomas and Sandra Tokarski to questions from The Bloomington Alternative. The Tokarskis are long-time transportation activists and founding members of Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads.
ALTERNATIVE: Let's start with where things stand today. As of a couple weeks ago, the state had graded 1.77 miles of roadway from I-164 north of Evansville, built one bridge and laid a couple hundred feet of onramps. Have you heard any reports on ongoing or planned construction?
TOKARSKIS: The state is slowly buying land north of the 1.77-mile segment. We believe they are going slow on land purchases because they want to make deals with willing sellers and not have to condemn property. A contract has been let for construction of a 0.43 mile segment a bit north of the current construction site to build the bridges over Pigeon Creek. Another 1.54-mile segment is scheduled to be let next March. We know of no other construction contracts that have been let. Several parts of the I-69 project are in the state's Long Range Plan but the dates are not reliable. They can and do change frequently.
Improving conditions for bicycling in Bloomington was the top priority expressed by the public during the city’s alternative transportation workshop last month.
The city’s planning office will use the feedback to update the city’s Alternative Transportation and Greenways System Plan, which has not been revised since it was originally adopted in 2001.
According to the original plan document, the plan’s goal is to “mitigate traffic congestion and improve the health, fitness, and quality of life of its residents,” and includes bus and pedestrian options as well as cycling. In addition to bike paths and signed routes, the plan includes “sidepaths” – a wide sidewalk open to bicycles – and multi-use trails that would be open to any non-vehicle traffic.
It was cycling, however, that received the most attention at workshop, which was attended by about 20 people. Planners heard repeated calls for better bicycle access to College Mall and the west-side retail area, the city’s main shopping hubs. The obvious routes are dangerous, participants said, and getting to those routes from outlying neighborhoods by bicycle is difficult.
It's 2:33 p.m. on Saturday, and we just started rolling out of Chicago, 18 minutes late, on the Empire Builder. This train, the eponymous benefactor of the Great Northern railway's founder James Hill, has traveled between Chicago and the West Coast for the past 77 years. For much of its history, it simply was the link between the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the country.
By Monday morning, when the train arrives at the Pacific Ocean, I will have journeyed some 2,200 miles. Our route takes us from Chicago, through Milwaukee and Minneapolis, then to Fargo and places ever northward. We'll spend all of Sunday skimming along just below the Canadian border before turning slightly southwards into the Cascade mountains and down to the sea.
Although the Empire Builder originated with the Great Northern railway, it's no longer a product of it. The Great Northern ceased to exist in the early 1970s, merged into the Burlington Railroad to become the Burlington Northern and then, as railroad merger mania continued, into its present form, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), one of the last remaining Class I railroad powerhouses.