While researching his book, “Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway”, Matt Dellinger traced the very early history of I-69 to a southern Indiana landowner, who in the early ‘90s, wanted to build a toll road from Evansville to Indianapolis.
“This man, David Graham, in Washington, Indiana, had been talking to this economist who said ‘look, your problem is, that it is too small a project. If you continued this proposed highway all the way to Mexico, then the numbers would change and the economics of it would look a lot more attractive if it was an international trade route,’” said Dellinger.
Twenty years and billions of dollars later, I-69 remains incomplete, although there has been progress, If I-69 ever is complete, it will extend from Canada to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Dellinger says funding issues and sometimes, the proposed route of the interstate have impeded progress as each mayor, congressman or senator along the way has tried to steer it in a way that would most benefit his or her constituents.
“These arguments about the route have been going on since the idea was very, very young. It is about politics and it is about economic development,” said Dellinger. “The bridges are obviously key points in the route. They’re kind of the pillars that the rest of the route is defined by.”
The latest dust up over I-69 doesn’t take place far Washington, Indiana.
“There are many people in the city of Evansville who thought they would never see the completion, or even ground broken for anything called I-69,” said Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke.
“I have CEOs and presidents of corporations in Evansville who routinely say to me, hey, without a new bridge linking Evansville to the Henderson area and connecting I-69 in Kentucky, Evansville really does become a cul-de-sac,” said Winnecke.
The current plan would take the route of I-69 from Indiana, across the Ohio River to Henderson with the construction of a new bridge. The cost of that bridge is estimated at over a billion dollars. That’s where Owensboro mayor Ron Payne comes in. He suggests re-routing the I-69 project to a path that would take it through his city.
“You know, why don’t we look at coming an additional 30 miles down the Western Kentucky Parkway and utilize the [William] Natcher [Bridge]and come north to Owensboro where there’s already a bridge across the Ohio river, so it just looks to me like we can save a lot of money by re-routing I-69,” said Payne.
That suggestion caught the Evansville mayor off-guard
“Whenever he delivered his state of the city speech, I saw it in a media clipping that was forwarded to me. I was very surprised. He made an appointment to come over and visit with me the following week. He made it very clear that he’s fighting for the I-69 bridge to never be built between Evansville and Henderson,” said Winnecke.
Winnecke, along with Kentucky’s top transportation official, Mike Hancock are insistent that the previously charted and approved course for I-69 is set. They cite the millions that have already been spent on planning, research, studies and upgrades to roads.
Hancock, in fact, released the following written statement:
“The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet does not plan to reroute Interstate 69 through Owensboro. Deviating from the congressionally designated Interstate 69 corridor would prove costly and be difficult to implement. The routes suggested through Owensboro are not compliant with federal interstate standards, nor is it the most direct and efficient route for motorists. We appreciate Mayor Payne’s input on the project, but the Cabinet will continue on the course that has been set.”
Evansville Mayor Winnecke says he appreciates the opinion of his counterpart in Owensboro, but isn’t changing his opinion.
“Mayors and communities along the Ohio River don’t get to decide where an interstate route [goes] or how it’s designated – that’s a congressional act,” said Winnecke. “He came to visit with me and we had a very candid discussion. He understands why I’m advocating what I’m fighting for, um, I guess I sort of understand his position, but the question I asked him then and that I would ask today is ‘where have you been for all these years?’ This route was decided and congress acted upon it years ago.”
As definitive as Mayor Winnecke sounds, Mayor Payne continues to move forward with his suggestion to change the I-69 route.
“It, at least in my opinion, deserves a look. I know everyone is saying ‘this is done, this is done, this is done’ looking at that original route,” said Payne. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t step back and take a look and see if there’s a better way. We can always do that and I would hope we would always do that if we think we can save substantial amounts of money.”
But author Matt Dellinger says Payne’s plan would also be costly, perhaps offsetting some of the savings he touts.
“It seems like an argument, that you would have to believe that there’d be no bridge built at all if I-69 were rerouted, which I don’t think would be the case. Re-routing the interstate might also involve environmental studies, that could set the project back several years and would cost money in their own right,” said Dellinger.
Mayor Payne says he’s sent a letter to Governor Steve Beshear, requesting that all work on I-69 be suspended until, in his words, “some of these questions can be answered”. One of those questions he says, involves the logistics of the proposed bridge between Henderson and Evansville.
“There’s consideration being given to replace the twin bridges at Henderson with this I-69 bridge. Well the first thing that comes to my mind is, ‘what’s the economic impact of that on the city of Henderson?”
But Henderson Mayor Steve Austin, who supports he current I-69 route, says those concerns have already been addressed. He says those twin bridges are aging – he approximates one to be 40 years old, the other about 70 years old. (The federal recommendation for bridge replacement comes after 80 years, he noted). If an I-69 bridge over the Ohio River between Henderson and Owensboro were to become reality, Austin visualizes the twin bridges to be re-purposed for local use, removing the need for much of the state money for maintenance.
“What could happen is that those bridges could be utilized for local traffic under a weight limit and where large trucks could not run on those bridges, because that’s what causes the high maintenance problems on those bridges is the heavy trucks,” said Austin.
Wherever the course of I-69 eventually ends up, Owensboro Mayor Ron Payne doesn’t appear to be giving up easily.
“We got time, I mean, it’s 8-10 years before you even begin to talk about building a bridge. So, we have time to look at this. If this is the right course, that was originally proposed, fine. But if not, then maybe we need someone independent to take a look at this.”
Payne says in addition to his letter to governor Beshear, he’s also asked Senators Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul and Congressman Brett Guthrie to at least take a look at his plan.