Sunday, January 18, 2009

'Shovel ready' for the stimulus plan?

Stimulus plan could put I-69 on fast track

INDOT says project isn’t ‘shovel ready’ even if federal funds become available


By Mike Leonard
Reporter Times (Indiana)
Copyright 2009

Supporters of the national transportation plan to build out I-69 from Canada to Mexico are taking encouragement from two recent events.

One is the economic stimulus plan being put together in Congress, intended to give incoming President Barack Obama a large chunk of money to jump-start the nation’s slumping economy. With I-69 already listed as a national transportation priority, highway proponents are hoping that some of the $30 billion earmarked for transportation infrastructure could find its way to the interstate project.

The second event was the recent announcement by Texas transportation authorities that they were retooling the massive and controversial Trans-Texas Corridor. The $180 billion project envisioned a 1,200-foot-wide swath through the state, incorporating toll roads for passenger vehicles, dedicated lanes for trucks, light rail and freight lines and new utility infrastructure.

The ambitious corridor plan put forth by Gov. Rick Perry was met with furious opposition from environmentalists, the Texas Farm Bureau, taxpayers and politicians from both sides of the aisle. Early this month, the Texas Department of Transportation announced that it was dropping the tarnished, Trans-Texas Corridor name and moving toward a plan to build components in sections, as money becomes available.

The Texas news conference had barely ended before some parties hailed the stalled project as a boon to I-69. “The I-69 project has been named as one of the seven highways of the future,” Lufkin Mayor Jack Gorden told the Lufkin Daily News. “There’s new hope for the infrastructure with possible funding from the federal government that would include I-69. There is a lot more optimism for it.”

Gorden said he expects a major push for I-69 funding to come from Houston and the Port of Houston.

Texas transportation spokeswoman Karen Amacker said the optimism might be premature. “I don’t think this announcement jump-starts or sets I-69 back,” she said. “I-69 has been a priority for us, and it will remain a priority for us.”
I-69 currently runs from the Canadian border through Michigan and into Indiana, ending at I-465 on the north side of Indianapolis. Often termed “The NAFTA Highway,” federal officials envision I-69 becoming a 2,680-mile trade corridor from Canada to Mexico that would include 1,660 miles of new terrain highway, including the planned stretch from Indianapolis through the west side of Bloomington to Evansville.

Sections of new terrain highway and upgraded roads already have been built all along the route. Last year, Indiana officials broke ground on the first, small section of highway at the Vanderburgh-Gibson county line. About $700 million has been appropriated from Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Major Moves transportation initiative to pay for the work that is moving north from the Evansville area. Indiana Dept. of Transportation spokeswoman, Cher Goodwin, said that by 2014-2015, the state expects to have signed all of the construction contracts to build I-69 from north of Evansville to the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in Greene County.

But Goodwin also sounded a skeptical note on whether I-69 might see an influx of money from the Congressional stimulus plan. “We’re hearing that there will be stipulations on that money and projects will need to be shovel-ready,” she said. “There is still work that needs to be done between Crane and Indianapolis.”

Goodwin said INDOT has contacted counties and municipalities to identify bridge and road repair projects that are ready to launch and simply lack funding. “We’ve contacted local officials to ask them, if a magic pot of money appears, what sort of projects could you envision you could accomplish?” she said.

Nationally, environmental groups criticized the $825 billion Congressional stimulus plan for not devoting enough money to existing infrastructure, keeping the door open for some new highway construction, and not putting enough money into alternative energy, public transit and rail.

On Friday, Gov. Daniels said Indiana could receive as much as $3 billion in federal stimulus money and it would be primarily devoted to education, Medicaid and “shovel ready” road and bridge projects. “It’s an astonishing amount of money,” he told the Louisville Courier Journal. “It will be really important to be prudent and careful with the way we spend it.”

© 2009 HoosierTimes Inc.

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