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NPR and the NAFTA Highway

Dear Mr. Inskeep:

As a journalist who frequently awakens to the sound of your voice, I was thrilled when The Bloomington Alternative heard last week that you were doing a piece on Southwest Indiana’s struggle against Interstate 69. I appreciate your attention to this subject. It is a political and environmental outrage worthy of NPR’s and the nation’s attention.

But I must confess that I was somewhat disappointed by the segment. It wasn’t that Sandra Tokarski didn’t make the case against the highway as eloquently as possible in the time allotted. She did, per usual. Neither was it that you allowed Indiana Department of Transportation Commissioner Brian Nicol’s brazen duplicity to pass unchallenged. Indiana citizens have come to expect that from mainstream, he-said she-said media coverage of I-69.

It was your premise–that I-69 is “hometown news”–that frustrated me. On that count, you weren’t even close.

As Sandra told you, on fundamentally important levels, I-69 is a hometown issue. It would destroy thousands of acres of prime Southwest Indiana farmland. It will mar the view out of hers and hundreds of other rural Hoosiers’ back windows. And it will devastate the character of numerous Indiana hometown downtowns along its path, including mine.

And And And The list of negative impacts this highway will have on Southwest Indiana hometowns has been well-chronicled by myself and countless other citizens and journalists over the past 13 years. But as important as all of them are, the journalistic truth is they are yesterday’s news. They are no longer the salient issues in the I-69 debate, certainly not as far as a national audience is concerned.

Neither are they the issues that will ultimately doom new-terrain I-69 in Indiana.

***

New-terrtain I-69 will never be built, Mr. Inskeep, in part because it represents a colossal failure of the democratic process–a point that Sandra touched upon in your piece and I am documenting in a series on the history of Indiana’s billion-dollar highway boondoggle called I-69: Road to democratic ruin.

What Sandra didn’t get a chance to tell you, but I’m sure would have if given time, is that after the Evan Bayh and Frank O’Bannon administrations spent 13 years and $28 million in taxpayer funds promoting their new-terrain I-69, more than 90 percent of the 21,000-plus citizens who submitted public comments opposed it. Ninety-four percent, to be exact.

New-terrain I-69 will never be built, in part because it will waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars when there is no money to waste.

After developing an Environmental Impact Statement that evaluated the economic and environmental impacts of different options for a Southwest Indiana highway, Frank O’Bannon chose the most expensive and the most environmentally destructive. According to state estimates, new-terrain I-69 will cost taxpayers $810 million more than the 41-70 alternative mentioned in your piece. New-terrain I-69 will never be built, in part because it will further deplete already depleted road and street budgets in other Indiana communities.

While Commissioner Nicol engaged in classic bureaucratic doublespeak when responding to your questions, what he would have told you, if given the time, is that the federal government will pay 80 percent of the cost of this highway. What he wouldn’t have told you, no matter how much time you gave him, is that he has deliberately misled Indiana taxpayers and the media into believing that the federal government is going to give the state a billion dollars in new money to build this highway.

The truth is, there is unlikely to be any new federal money for I-69. It will be built using the state’s regular allotment of federal highway funds–80 percent of which is funded by federal highway taxes. But those funds also finance new construction, upgrades, and repairs to roads and bridges at the state and local levels.

In other words, the billions it will cost to build I-69 will come directly out of the road and street budgets of Indiana hometowns like Carmel, which I understand is yours. If I-69 is built, your hometown friends, family, and community will pay a dear price for it, Mr. Inskeep. So will mine, and every other Hoosier’s.

All of that is why, if there’s any breath left at all in our nation’s ailing democracy, new-terrain I-69 will never be built.

***

Perhaps most important among the things that Sandra didn’t have time to tell you is that the struggle for I-69 is not just about Hoosiers’ back yards–however narrowly or broadly defined. In the final analysis, I-69 is a struggle over the global economy.

Another reason new-terrain I-69 will never be built is that it will facilitate the loss of American jobs to Mexico, an economic injustice that even Hoosier workers will eventually wake up to.

As the introduction to your piece noted, highway promoters envision I-69 running from Mexico to Canada. What you didn’t say is that I-69 is the NAFTA highway, planned as the largest truck corridor on the North American continent. Its primary purpose will be to facilitate trade between Canada, the United States, Mexico, and points south.

Now, any NPR listener who pays the slightest attention knows what a devastating ruse “free trade” has turned out to be for American workers and their communities. A recent economic report in my hometown, for example, showed that this community of roughly 100,000 has lost 2,300 jobs in recent years. Most of those were good-paying manufacturing jobs shipped to maquiladoras along the U.S. Mexican border by global economy powers such as General Electric and Thompson.

Contrary to what Mr. Nicol told you, the I-69 NAFTA highway ultimately will cost Indiana good-paying jobs, not attract them. The jobs it will create will be those of the Interstate-sprawl variety mentioned by Sandra–low-paying fast-food, truck stop, and motel jobs.

Plans for the Indiana stretch of the NAFTA highway are the most advanced anywhere along the corridor. For that reason, the Southwest Indiana citizen struggle against I-69 is evolving past the not-in-by-backyard (NIMBY) model suggested in your piece into a battleground over global trade.

I-69 is not about NIMBY, Mr. Inskeep, it’s about NAFTA. I urge you to stay tuned and check in with us often.

STEVEN HIGGS is editor of The Bloomington Alternative. He can be reached at: editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com

 

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Steven Higgs is an environmental journalist and photographer living in Bloomington, Ind. He owns and operates Natural Bloomington: Ecotours and More. His new book A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana is scheduled for release by Indiana University Press on April 20, 2016.

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