The on-going tale of when and if a direct highway connecting Indianapolis and Evansville will be constructed has taken another proverbial bend in the proposed road.
The Indiana Department of Transportation is now saying the start of construction of the extension of Interstate I-69 is more than a decade away. INDOT said Tuesday work on the road that would provide Evansville a direct link with the capital city will not start for another decade, with completion not expected until 2030 at the earliest.
"Our department does not have funding mechanisms in place today to pay for this project utilizing conventional funding sources,” said Tom Sharp, INDOT commissioner. “The governor has instructed us to look for innovative funding options to pay for the project and make it a reality."
The executive director of an Evansville-based economic development group said while he understands the administration of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is “truly in a financial bind,” the state needs to commit to building the road.
“(I-69) is the No. 1 economic development project for Southwestern Indiana. It will be an enormous economic engine not only for the Evansville area but for the state as a whole," said Ken Robinson, executive director of Vision-e. “The reality is this highway will only be built once the state makes it a priority. Period.”
Robinson said he is now questioning how committed the Daniel’s administration is to building the highway and emphasized supporters of the interstate need to be more vocal. “If there was ever a time for heightened leadership at the local level,” Robinson said. “Now is the time to bring those forces together. I think it is critical (INDOT) hear the positive side.”
INDOT said it had uncovered Long-Range Plan documents from the O’Bannon/Kernan administration going back as far as 2002, indicating construction of the $1.8 billion project would not begin until 2017. "The public deserves to know the information we have uncovered while sifting through mountains of highway project planning documents," said Tom Sharp, INDOT commissioner. “Based on announcements from previous administrations, most citizens assumed I-69 construction was imminent and would be finished by 2017. That was never the case."
Governor Frank O’Bannon (D) died in Sept. 2003, while still in office. Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan took over the post. Kernan ran for election in 2004, but was defeated by current governor Mitch Daniels (R).
Sharp emphasized that INDOT is searching for ways to move the project forward, including finding funding alternatives to pay for the highway. "INDOT will explore every possible alternative to develop a realistic solution. It's a huge challenge, but I-69 is incredibly important to Indiana's economy," Sharp said. "After decades of promises, Hoosiers are wondering if the highway will ever be built in their lifetime. That's very understandable given the way the project has been strung along for years,"
The department anticipates presenting I-69 funding options this fall. In the meantime, work continues on refining the highway corridor and determining a final alignment. Since 1999, the state has obligated more than $58 million for environmental assessment costs related to the project.