The American consciousness associates Katrina’s devastation with New Orleans, but the historic storm’s wake also disrupted the transportation infrastructure in the Mississippi Delta region, reminding the nation of the supply-chain importance of the South. Can a new interstate really make an economic renaissance in small southern communities, or would it only serve as an outdated stimulus that plays into the hands of private global interests?
Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway is the first book from transportation journalist Matt Dellinger. It examines the economic hopes and community fears of what became known as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) highway, estimated to cost $27 billion. I requested a review copy because I have a love of cars and interstate travel; finding out the author is from my home state was extra bonus-points in the anticipation department for me.
Not the road to nowhere
Interstate 69 currently runs between the U.S.-Canada border at Port Huron, Michigan, and I-465 at Indianapolis, Indiana. There are plans to extend the route to the U.S.-Mexico border, adding segments through southern Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas. If completed, a cross-country I-69 would become a significant truck route for NAFTA-related traffic (which has doubled since NAFTA’s passage) and a spur to economic growth for communities in the Mississippi Delta region. Dellinger’s opening comments capture the sentiment well:
“Sometimes new infrastructure projects are mocked as “bridges to nowhere”…But a truth gets lost in the rhetoric: Once you build a bridge — or highway, or a transit line — the “nowhere” at the other end becomes a somewhere.”
As further observed by Reverend J Y Trice of Rosedale, Mississippi, a town hoping for the new highway, “That’s what this highway is, an economic highway.”
Interstate 69 focuses on the impacted communities and associated lobbyists. While southern Indiana coalitions try to retain quality of life, southern Texan communities, through the Trans-Texas Corridor, demand several new highways as well as rail to address the population growth. You will read highlights including:
- Memphis’ history of protecting Overton Park from the construction of I-40, and its stake in I-69
- The goals of various Delta towns such as Walls, Mississippi, seeking managed population growth, and Haynesville, Louisiana, hoping to recover from its decline
- The Great River Bridge segment of I-69 that would cross the Mississippi River into Arkansas
- The Tokarskis, a southern Indiana activist couple who fights the circumvention of state studies questioning the highway extension from Indianapolis to Evansville, Indiana
The information about historical ties will satisfy business owners who have an interest in civic projects; the I-40 history in Memphis references Robert Moses, the architect of New York City’s parkways and the Cross Bronx Expressway that devastated the Bronx. Yet the organizations surrounding I-69 construction and protest offer modern touches in the stories regarding their debates. For example, James Newland, director of the Mid-Continent Highway, an I-69 support group, mused of the impact: “President Eisenhower – I served under him – he saw what a modern transportation system means. We are living in a globalized society. We couldn’t withdraw from the global economy if we wanted to.” When Dellinger relays Newland’s comments to Sandra Tokarski, she offers an equally sophisticated protest, referencing past remedies such as moving people out of their homes: “Rural people are not going to roll over and play dead anymore.”
Historical highway overview gives great context
Ted Connover, author of The Routes of Man, a global look at transportation, once stated how roads helped the Roman empire conquer the surrounding communities — and also led to its demise through invasion. Interstate 69 offers an equally impartial look at a double-edged economic sword, such as the cost for some communities to participate in a highway’s potential. According to a quoted study, Oakland City, Indiana, a town 30 miles from Evansville, “would become a bedroom community – but only if it spends a lot of money to improve its schools and other city services…Governor Daniels had pushed through statewide limits on property taxes, forcing many small towns to cut their already anemic budgets.”
I liked the historical presidential overviews on transportation, such as President Roosevelt’s consideration of tolls for construction payment and owning land for commercial purpose. Dellinger’s research on Indiana’s background as a crossroads of America is superbly raised, with references to the Wabash and Erie Canals and the business purposes behind the adoption of Daylight Savings Time statewide. The lobbying history is the hallmark of Interstate 69. Comments regarding the future of transportation funding approval are split between eyeing future transportation needs and the need for immediate economic relief.
“Transportation progressives may face a debilitating irony: The very techniques they have perfected for slowing down highway projects might be brought into play against more eco-sensitive endeavors such as transit and high-speed rail.”
Indeed, of a $787 billion stimulus approved by Congress, $45 billion was earmarked for transportation-infrastructure improvement:
“To anyone even halfway listening, Obama made clear his preference for rail and transit over new highways, but the mission of the stimulus was to spend money as quickly as possible, and a vast majority of shovel-ready projects were asphalt-ready.”
(Note: Obama announced a $50 billion budget for transportation on September 5th, a few days after this book’s publication.)
The future unknown (but certainly with a toll involved)
The future is uncertain for a cross-country I-69, but some segments already exist. Memphis and northern Mississippi already have the newest segments built. Meanwhile, the debate over privately funded toll roads owned by foreign-owned companies challenges Roosevelt’s concepts of national interest in land, transportation and commerce, with the current gas tax woefully underfunding maintenance costs.
Interstate 69 is a nice casual read about America, similar to Hollowing Out the Middle, with less urgency but no less insight. Interstate 69 shows that local interests do not stay local in this day and age, meaning legislative policies can get out of step with economic realities faster than a speeding truck.
More information on the author and book are available at www.mattdellinger.com and through Twitter @MattDellinger.