A friend of mine recently summed up the mindset of all too many when it comes to economic development:
This bunch loves casinos and highways and bridges and hates mass transit. Highways and bridges and casinos are their answer to every problem: Tax base eroding? Build a casino. Urban congestion? Build a highway. Can’t get to casinos? Built a bridge. Undeveloped backwoods counties? Build a highway AND a casino AND more bridges. Jobs recovery slow? Build a highway.
This is on display yet again in Indiana. Politicians in southwest Indiana spent three decades agitating for a new freeway called I-69 linking Evansville and Indianapolis. Gov. Mitch Daniels finally started construction and the first segment is almost done. This will probably be a $2-3 billion expenditure by the time it’s all over.
What do you think the reaction of Southwest Indiana leaders would be now that they are getting the road of their dreams? Maybe open the champagne bottle? Start putting together economic development plans to leverage this new road?
Well, maybe some of them are, but a number of them are already organizing to start agitating for their next new highway demand, their so-called I-67:
When I-69 opened last year Daviess County got its first link into the nation’s interstate system. Now, a proposal is being discussed that would add yet another interstate link to the county.
Business leaders in Owensboro, Kentucky and Dubois County have built a coalition to build what they call I-67. The road would link into I-69 near Washington, extend south through Jasper and Owensboro and eventually link up with I-65 at Bowling Green, Ky.
Coalition members are excited about the proposal and want to see it become a reality. “We’ve been working on this for a number of years,” said coalition member Hank Menke.
The Evansville Courier, the top supporter of I-69, labeled the I-67 campaign “a worthy mission.” (Incidentally, Evansville got their casino and their highway, now they want a $1 billion bridge so they can have the trifecta. On a per capita basis, that might even be a bigger financial boondoggle than the bridges project in Louisville).
One might perhaps justify I-69 on the simple matter of fairness. Look at a map and see freeway spokes radiating from Indianapolis to the rest of the state, with the southwest link missing. But it certainly wasn’t justified economically. The existing interstate rolling through Southern Indiana, I-64, is the least traveled in the state despite linking St. Louis and Louisville, and has not spawned much in the way of economic development. There’s little prospect for I-69 doing much better, at least south of Bloomington. If you wanted to build it to try to save the Crane Naval Warfare Center from closure then fine, but at least say that’s why you’re building it.
What this actually shows is that for a lot of people, building highways is an end itself. There will never be a day when people aren’t pushing some sort of massive boondoggle. It may well be that the state hasn’t agreed to build this road. But it’s also early. Few of Indiana’s major projects, whether that be the Illiana Expressway, I-69, or the Ohio River Bridges, were cooked up by the engineers in INDOT’s planning department. Instead, they were local priorities that over time became “high priority” projects for the state.
Without much else to offer economic hope to fading rural areas, small towns, and old small industrial cities, highway construction is easy snake oil solution. No amount of highway construction will ever satiate this never-ending demand for yet more mega-roads.