Photograph by Steven Higgs
Thomas Tokarski is interviewed by television reporters at a public hearing in Bloomington in June 2005. Today he says that it is not too late for citizens to stop the Interstate 69/NAFTA Highway, if they get involved politically and demand that the state respect the basic tenets of democracy.
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.
Second in a series
Part 1: Twenty years of crimes against democracy
ALTERNATIVE: I read that Gov. Mitch Daniels has discussed postponing work on some onramps so that they can start building from the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in Martin County south. What do you make of this strategy?
TOKARSKIS: The state's current priority is to get to Crane. Governor Daniels knows they don't have the money to get there using current design and construction plans, so he has proposed cheapening the highway. INDOT plans to do this by "deferring" some interchanges, access roads and some over/under passes. Realistically, if the projects are deferred they will most likely never be built. If they don't have the money now, when will they have it?
The governor also wants to use asphalt instead of concrete and to use thinner asphalt than what is normally required. Gov. Daniels recently stated, commenting on the rising costs: "Throw away the rule book to the extent the feds will let you do it." This is all an attempt to lock in the route: spend enough money on it so the route can't be changed or dropped altogether. Gov. Daniels wants to lay as much mainline asphalt as possible during his tenure and let someone else worry about how to complete it.
ALTERNATIVE: The state has $700 million in the bank earmarked for I-69, allegedly enough to complete Sections 1, 2 and 3. How much highway can they build with $700 million?
"The governor has stated publicly that he doesn't build highways where people don't want them. We need to hold him to that pledge."
TOKARSKIS: Based on current estimates from the Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for sections 1-3, the highway will cost an average of $18 million per mile. Based on that amount, the $700 million will get them about 39 miles, not quite to Washington and 28 miles short of State Road 231 near Crane. It will take another $500 million to get all the way to Crane. Once they get to Crane they still have over 75 miles to go and the cost per mile will be much greater. These are conservative estimates based on current costs. Inflation will likely increase in the years ahead pushing up the total cost. We also know that INDOT typically lowballs the cost estimates. So the costs in the EISs are underestimated to begin with.
ALTERNATIVE: What is the status of other funding sources, state, federal and private?
TOKARSKIS: Representative Brad Ellsworth from Southwest Indiana has asked for a $1.69 billion earmark for I-69 in the upcoming federal transportation bill. This bill is typically filled with thousands of such earmarks, so it is uncertain how much he will actually get.
It is difficult to say whether there is money in the state budget for I-69. State and INDOT funds are very flexible. They can be, and are, moved around according to political priorities. Tracking INDOT funds is like trying to follow one snowflake in a blizzard.
Private funding seems less likely than it was before the economic crash. Public/private toll roads were all the rage earlier, but there was a huge outcry when Gov. Daniels said I-69 would be a "toll road or no road." Also, the big investment banks are in trouble and less likely to get involved with risky projects like an I-69 toll road. On the other hand, pay-by-the-mile schemes are the subject of much discussion in Washington, D.C. The details on how they would work is uncertain at this time, but they could be the source of lots of money for highways or other uses. We have been told by highway experts that some sort of pay-by-the-mile scheme is very likely to become a reality in the future.
Also, Gov. Daniels and Gov. Beshear of Kentucky recently met to begin a process to cooperate on the funding and building of major projects. These projects, such as the Ohio River Bridge for I-69, would be funded by bonding, with the bonds being paid off by tolls. We don't know if those would be public or private toll road ventures.
ALTERNATIVE: How much of the $300 million in stimulus money that state officials say Indiana will get could potentially go to I-69?
TOKARSKIS: Once again, we don't know for sure. Federal stimulus money is supposed to be less flexible, but we're not convinced that it can't be shifted around. Also, it might be used to replace funding for a particular project and the money that is freed up could then be used for I-69. This sort of shell game is hard to follow. If the political will is there, then devious, underhanded, sneaky ways will be implemented to "find" the money.
We also know that there are huge funding needs across the state, and many politicians want the money for their districts. Three-hundred-million dollars million is not a lot of money for all the needy projects in Indiana.
ALTERNATIVE: Are there any bills in Congress or the General Assembly that would impact I-69?
TOKARSKIS: We mentioned the federal earmark for I-69 and other possibilities in our previous answer. State legislation from 2008 forbid I-69 from being a toll road. We are not aware of any other bill/s that impact funding for I-69.
INDOT will continue to operate out of the big pot of money from state and federal gas taxes. This money is sometimes divided up in odd and mysterious ways according to political demands.
ALTERNATIVE: What is the latest estimate for how much the highway is really going to cost?
"The entire route, from a new bridge over the Ohio River to Indianapolis, we estimate will cost at least $5 billion."
TOKARSKIS: The entire route, from a new bridge over the Ohio River to Indianapolis, we estimate will cost at least $5 billion. This is a conservative estimate. The Ohio River Bridge alone is now estimated to cost over $1 billion. That cost will be shared with Kentucky, and it will likely be a toll bridge. Kentucky officials have said that is the only way it can be paid for. Recent legislation in Kentucky and an agreement with Gov. Daniels would set up a funding commission to design a funding mechanism for major projects like the I-69 bridge. Funding estimates for sections 4-6, from Crane to Indianapolis, are not current. These three sections would be, by far, the most expensive to build.
ALTERNATIVE: How important is the decision the Bloomington Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPO) will make in September regarding the hardship buyout in Monroe County?
TOKARSKIS: INDOT and The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) are acting as if it is very important indeed. They won't take no for an answer. The regional director of the FHWA was at the MPO meeting in June to make his case. The issue was postponed at that time so he didn't get to make a statement. He will likely be back in September. The letter he sent to the MPO makes it clear that he is not going to submit to any rebellion by this MPO. It is about power and control, as well as about I-69. It's about who will control the funds for the MPO region. It is a threatening and coercive letter.
INDOT and the Federal Highway Administration want a Bloomington endorsement of I-69. They want this rebellious city to acquiesce. Bloomington's submission will be used to show official acceptance of the project all along the route and that will be used to leverage money from the federal government. It will be a great PR issue for the promoters -- even Bloomington is now on board with I-69. Also, the I-69 promoters will then have purchased land in all counties along the route. That will help lock in the governor's preferred route and diminish the chances of any other alternative, such as the U.S. 41/I-70 route.
ALTERNATIVE: Mayor Kruzan has said that citizens can stop I-69. Do you still think that is possible?
"If they don't have the money now, when will they have it?"
TOKARSKIS: Yes, if the citizens continue to resist and if city and county officials continue to truly represent their constituents and insist that democratic principles are still important and should be upheld. If they insist that the governor also abide by democratic principles, then I-69 can be stopped. We can only lose if democracy loses. The governor has stated publicly that he doesn't build highways where people don't want them. We need to hold him to that pledge. If we lack the courage and determination to protect our city and county then we will be bullied into submission, and we will get what we don't want. It's up to all of us to determine our fate in this matter.
ALTERNATIVE: What are the strategies for highway opponents going forward from now?
TOKARSKIS: We will continue to press for the truth. We will attempt to expose the broken, corrupt processes that the state and federal government have used to justify I-69. We will continue to expose the biased, discredited studies the consultants do while wasting tens of millions of our tax dollars. We will continue to try and cut funding for I-69 at the state and federal levels. We will continue to support transportation options that make sense for this state and the nation. We will continue to encourage and rely on responsible citizens to stand up and demand that they be listened to.
Where feasible, we will pursue legal challenges. And if we really had a lot of money we would hire a first rate private investigator who would look into INDOT's budget, how INDOT contracts are awarded, blunders and overcharging by INDOT contractors, what happened to the Major Moves money, who contributes to the governor's campaign, how much money out-of-state law firms have received for I-69 work and how many INDOT highway feasibility studies recommended the no build alternative. Does INDOT even imagine there is such a thing as an unnecessary highway?
ALTERNATIVE: Realistically, what do you think the future of transportation is for Indiana and the United States?
"Times have changed, the world has changed, but Indiana acts like it's still the 1950s when highways were thought to be the source of all good."
TOKARSKIS: Indiana is way behind in planning and building a transportation system for the future. Times have changed, the world has changed, but Indiana acts like it's still the 1950s when highways were thought to be the source of all good. That assumption has been demonstrated over and over to be simpleminded. Indiana is overinvested in highways. Indiana officials already brag about the state being the Crossroads of America, but they act as if they won't be satisfied until it is the Spaghetti Junction of America.
Indiana is already 10th in the Nation in interstate highway density and sixth in total road density. Indianapolis has more interstate highway connections than any other city in the whole country. With all these highways, Indiana's economy continues to suffer. Meanwhile, Forbes Magazine recently ranked Indiana 49th among the states in environmental quality. I-69 will help drive Indiana along this downward spiral.
Many other states are taking the lead in planning and building transportation alternatives for the future.
Backward thinking by political leaders and Indiana's transportation planners will cause severe economic problems for our citizens going forward. Climate change, increasing fuel costs, changing economic realities, the need to preserve farmland and forests and other environmental concerns should drive transportation systems, not the myth of highways as economic saviors. Unless Indiana citizens take a more active role in demanding a transportation system that involves options other than just more and bigger highways, Indiana is doomed to become an economic backwater. We will strangle ourselves in highways.
ALTERNATIVE: Idealistically, what do you think the future of transportation should be for Indiana and the United States?
TOKARSKIS: For the future we will need a transportation system that is more efficient for commerce, convenient and affordable for all our citizens and is much less polluting. Trains can transport raw materials, finished products and people efficiently and responsibly, especially over longer distances. We need regional transportation systems that can get people between cities conveniently and affordably. Local bike paths and walkways can reduce the need for car trips.
We need land-use planning that does not encourage sprawl developments. We need to conserve our farmland, forests and wetlands. Realistically, we think that individual cars will still be a part of our transportation system. People love the freedom and convenience of being able to jump in the car and go whenever and wherever they want. That will become less important as reliable options come into place. Everyone will appreciate the savings on car insurance, repair bills and fuel costs. There will be trade offs. Nothing is free. But overall, communities will be made more livable, affordable and more environmentally sustainable as we rely less on the auto/oil/road building monopoly.
ALTERNATIVE: Anything else citizens should know.
"We can only lose if democracy loses."
TOKARSKIS: I-69 is about more than just another highway. The physical and economic damage the highway would cause is bad enough, but the damage it has done to our democracy is worse. Democracy only works if citizens and political leaders have access to accurate, honest and complete information about the issues under consideration, and if they have a meaningful voice in determining the outcome. The process used to justify I-69 fails both of these tests. The studies done for I-69 are bogus. They are biased and have a predetermined outcome. They do not honestly inform the public about the costs and benefits of the highway.
Unprecedented numbers of citizens across the state have acted responsibly in the debate over I-69. There has been an overwhelmingly negative outcry by these caring, thoughtful citizens. Unfortunately, these citizens and their concerns have been ignored by several governors, INDOT, federal agencies and consultants who make millions of dollars doing misleading studies. Some citizens have met with intimidation and scorn for their involvement in the democratic process. As a result of ignoring its citizens, the state is misusing huge amounts of our tax dollars. Instead of listening to their constituents, politicians bow to special interests and the campaign contributions they receive from those special interests.
I-69 is going forward because the democratic process is broken. I-69 is a symbol for much of what is wrong with our country. We must correct those mistakes.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.