In the following Q&A on Interstate 69, District 61 State Representative Matt Pierce responds to questions from Bloomington Alternative editor Steven Higgs. Pierce's responses are published verbatim.

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Alternative: In the Jan. 5, 2003, issue of The Bloomington Alternative, I quoted Mark Kruzan as follows:

  • "More pavement is not synonymous with progress, especially when it's through farmland and forest."
  • "A new highway may well help the economies of some communities along its path, but the extent of the benefits is not a certainty. What is certain is the permanent devastation that would result from a new-terrain path."
  • "Given the dramatic under-funding of Indiana's existing roads and bridges, it's difficult to understand the state's highway priorities."
  • "It's clear roads alone are not the key to economic development. Crawford County is one of the poorest counties in the state despite the fact I-64 runs through it. Lake County has numerous struggling communities despite the convergence of I-80, 90, and 94."
  • "The quality of life in Bloomington is what makes our community unique. An interstate threatens that quality."
  • "We should be deciding now, not 10 years from now, what we want Bloomington to look like in the future. An interstate dividing us is not a part of my vision."
  • Taken as a whole, this is a strongly worded indictment of the entire I-69 boondoggle. Would you please tell the Alternative audience whether you agree or disagree with the positions Mark takes here and elaborate as you see fit?

    Pierce: I agree with Mayor Kruzan's view that more pavement does not equal progress. The benefits of a new terrain I-69 are uncertain while there is certainty about what it will mean to the lives of people who now live in the proposed interstate's path. The Mayor has correctly pointed-out that Interstate 64 runs through some of the poorest counties in Indiana and numerous interstates running through Lake County have not solved that area's economic problems.

    I have often said the idea of a major highway bringing economic prosperity to a region is outmoded thinking. I have attended numerous forums and discussions about how Indiana can create good jobs to replace the high-paying manufacturing jobs we have lost. Rarely is a new highway mentioned as a key ingredient. Instead, economic development strategies focus on a highly educated workforce and maintaining a community with a good quality of life. The infrastructure that I hear businesses demanding is affordable, high-speed connections to the Internet. Wireless broadband could be provided to most, if not all of the state, for just about what has already been spent on I-69 studies and consultants.

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    Alternative: Picking up on Mark's third point, about funding priorities, I quoted you from a Third House meeting in the January 25, 2004, issue of the Alternative:

  • I don't think we need to get into the deep, philosophical question of whether or not I-69 is a good thing or a bad thing because I don't think you can get past the funding problems."
  • "When we talk about the federal government funding 80 percent of the highway and the state funding 20 percent, that would, at least currently, come out of the state's normal allotment of highway funds it gets from the federal gas tax. If you take that 80 percent and now you put a billion dollars of that or more into building I-69, you've essentially wiped off every other road project from the state."
  • Isn't your characterization of I-69 as a deep, philosophical argument a bit of an understatement? The O'Bannon/Kernan administrations have spent more than $30 million of taxpayer funds over the past 14 years on a project that you, Andy Ruff, Becky Skillman, Lawrence Borst, Turk Roman, Eric Koch, and tens of thousands of Hoosier citizens, not to mention every unbiased study of the subject over the past half century, including Donohue, have clearly demonstrated is unaffordable. Is it wrong to call this a $30 million taxpayer fraud?

    Pierce: The point I was making with that statement is both sides can debate the merits of an I-69 extension or what route it should take, if built, but those decisions are just an academic exercise if there is no money to build the highway. My greatest frustration about this issue is INDOT's unwillingness to admit an I-69 extension will siphon money away from other road projects.

    Statements that the federal government will pay for 80% of I-69 mislead people into thinking new money will be appropriated for the project. Despite efforts to make I-69 a national priority (NAFTA highway), Congress has yet to indicate it considers I-69 a critical missing link in America's interstate highway system. The 80% of federal funding often referred to is nothing more than Indiana's normal allotment of road funding under the federal highway bill that must also pay for every other road maintenance and improvement project in the state.

    And that is only part of the story. For the past several years, the contractors and workers who depend on road building for their livelihoods have told the General Assembly that INDOT will soon not have enough money to cover the state's 20% share of road projects. They say maintenance and improvement projects will grind to a halt without a gas tax increase because Indiana will not have the money necessary to pay for its share of projects. Without the 20%, INDOT cannot use the other 80% allocated from the federal government.

    Now, with that problem calling into question how I-69 can be funded, consider what might happen to Indiana's share of federal money when a new highway funding bill is passed by Congress.

    Every five years, Congress must reauthorize highway programs. Each reauthorization includes a formula to determine how much each state will get from the federal gas tax. Congress was unable to agree on a bill during its last session, but the versions of the bill that were consideredwould result in Indiana getting far less money than it needs to maintain its current roads and bridges. I think it is highly unlikely Congress will provide funds to specifically build I-69.

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    Alternative: Until the "funding problems" you cite have been resolved, can the Indiana Legislature justify allowing the governor to spend another dime of taxpayer money on I-69? Would you sponsor a resolution or legislation in next year's General Assembly calling on Gov. Daniels to place a moratorium on I-69 until the funding questions have been addressed?

    Pierce: This issue is now firmly in the control of the Republicans who will control the House, Senate and Governor's office. Some might think pointing this out is dodging the issue, but it is literally the case for the first time since 1988.

    I understand Governor-elect Daniels has said he does not want to do anything to slow construction of the I-69 extension. This makes it very likely the Republican majority will oppose any legislation that contradicts Mitch Daniels' own position on the highway. Republicans and the Evansville area legislators who support I-69 would vote against any moratorium legislation. This defeat would then be used by proponents of I-69 to say the highway enjoys broad bipartisan support.

    However, Governor-elect Daniels has expressed some concerns about funding and at one point suggested a toll-road would be necessary to pay for the highway. I will be focusing my efforts on making sure everyone understands the true cost of I-69.

    With the Daniels administration taking over management of INDOT, there is an opportunity to end the vague references to federal funding of the highway used by the previous administration and force an admission that other road projects will be delayed or cancelled to pay for I-69.

    I will also continue pointing out to my fellow legislators how I-69 threatens road improvements in their own legislative districts. I believe once it becomes clear what a direct impact I-69 will have on their own road projects, many legislators will oppose it.

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    Steven Higgs is editor of The Bloomington Alternative. He can be reached at editor@BloomigntonAlternative.com.

    State Representative Matt Pierce can be reached at mpierce@bloomington.in.us or h61@in.gov.