Price tag for I-69 project growing

April 20, 2009

If the latest estimates to build two sections of Interstate 69 downstate are any indication, what was once predicted to be a $1.8 billion extension from Evansville to Indianapolis is now headed north of $3 billion.

The higher estimated costs for two sections totaling 54 miles were disclosed in environmental impact statements released by the Indiana Department of Transportation and open for public comment until June 8.

The sections represent more than one-third of the planned 142-mile interstate extension and run south from Crane to Oakland City.

In 2003, while lobbying the federal government to approve the I-69 project, state officials estimated the same 54-mile stretch would cost $422 million, which is the midpoint of a high-low cost estimate.

But the second-tier environmental study released in January estimated the cost for the 54 miles at more than double the original estimate—$863 million, according to documents.

A big reason is a double-digit rise in inflation affecting construction, said Bruce Childs, a deputy commissioner of INDOT.

Another was the change in plans for a bridge spanning the Patoka National Wildlife Refuge, in Oakland City. Instead of a 500-foot-long bridge originally planned, the state now plans to spend $40 million more on a 4,400-foot span.

In the latest environmental studies, INDOT also cites factors such as additional local access roads and the realignment of U.S. 50, which were not included in the 2003 studies.

INDOT says a variety of other costs, such as construction administration, design changes and utility relocation, were not included before because those assumptions were appropriate "for comparing corridors over a broad geographic area."

However measured, the escalation has renewed calls from opponents to shelve the route in favor of the 14-mile-longer U.S. 41/Interstate 70 alternative INDOT previously considered.

That's despite the fact that construction began last summer on the first 1.8 miles of I-69 near I-64, north of Evansville.

"In our view, there's still a strong case for still being able to change the route at this point and still get the road built more quickly and a lot cheaper," said Tim Maloney, senior policy director at the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Last month, I-69 got a largely symbolic thumbs-down from a government agency—the Bloomington/Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization, which under federal mandate conducts transportation planning for the Bloomington area.

The MPO voted not to include buying an I-69-related property in its list of transportation projects for which federal funds are sought. The state likely will pick up the cost of the parcel.

As far as INDOT and Gov. Mitch Daniels' administration are concerned, the new-terrain I-69 route is unstoppable—at least the portions for which the state has dedicated $700 million in so-called Major Moves money set aside from the lease of the Indiana Toll Road.

The $700 million has been allotted to construction through 2015, at which time it will be up to a future governor and General Assembly to ensure state and federal funds to finish I-69 toward Indianapolis.

INDOT officials still maintain the $700 million should be enough to fund at least the construction of the first three sections from Evansville to Crane; that doesn't include such costs as right-of-way acquisition and environmental mitigation.

The HEC estimates that the first two sections now will cost INDOT nearly $730 million, based on more recent environmental study cost estimates.

INDOT officials are weighing cost-saving options, such as paving with asphalt rather than concrete. They're pondering delays in building some interchanges and reducing the width of medians to the low end of the 60-foot to 84-foot-wide federal standards.

"It depends on how it bids out," INDOT's Childs said. "It would still be a good highway, still one motorists would feel safe on."

But groups opposed to the new-terrain I-69, including Bloomington-based Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, say using cheaper materials is costly in the long run because it would increase maintenance costs and undermine the economics of the new-terrain route.

CARR and HEC argue the U.S. 41/I-70 route would cost roughly half as much and could be built much quicker.

Though a new round of environmental studies still must be conducted on the three sections from Bloomington to Indianapolis, those costs will exceed the 2003 estimate of $1.2 billion. INDOT now pegs the northern three sections at $2.1 billion, based on 2010 dollars.

The cost of acquiring property alone in urbanized Marion County will be high, said Pat Andrews, vice president of Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations.

As far back as 2004, Perry Township's then-tax assessor estimated that 110 properties could stand in the way of I-69's northern terminus at Interstate 465. Those properties at the time had an assessed value of $61 million.

"[The state] left the terminus up in Perry Township to be the last piece because resistance is going to get harder the more north they go" in highway completion, Andrews said.

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