Ceremony marks opening of I-69 section in southern Indiana

The newest section of the Interstate 69 extension through southwestern Indiana opened Wednesday, allowing drivers for the first time to travel between Evansville and Indianapolis through Bloomington using only multi-lane highways.

Numerous state and local officials took part in an event marking the completion of the 27-mile section that starts near the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center.

Gov. Mike Pence drove a transportation department pickup truck through a ribbon stretched across the roadway, followed by a caravan. The section was opened to the public a short time later and is the fourth part of the planned 142-mile Evansville-to-Indianapolis highway to be completed.

The first three sections opened in 2012, while construction continues on upgrading the current four-lane Indiana 37 from Bloomington to Martinsville. The route and financing for the final leg between Martinsville and Indianapolis is undecided.

Pence told the crowd of several hundred people that the final two sections would be completed.

"When I say we need to finish what we started, I'm not just talking about Section 4," Pence said.

Opening of the new I-69 section came about a year later than had planned due to weather and construction delays. Its $471 million cost was about 6 percent more than the original contract price, which state highway department spokesman Will Wingfield blamed mostly on heavy rains causing an erosion-control problem.

Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke said the I-69 extension represents a missing spoke in Indiana's highway system.

"From an economic development standpoint, it's a huge plus because it gives our businesses and industry in Evansville and our region more efficient means to transport goods further north," he said.

Supporters of the extension project tout it as an economic boost for the largely rural part of the state, while opponents lament the highway's environmental impact.

"I want to be optimistic," Monroe County Councilwoman Cheryl Munson said. "Locally, I am not anticipating any immediate benefits, except for people to commute to Crane easier."

Also undecided is how to link Indiana's section of I-69 to the route through Kentucky. An advocacy coalition estimates a four-lane bridge across the Ohio River near Evansville would cost about $800 million, although there is no timetable for building the bridge.

"We're really running down three paths here, how Indiana, Kentucky and the federal government can help, and hoping people understand the value of it. And they do," Winnecke said. "We've never run into anyone who says it's a bad idea. It's finding the funding stream."

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