INDIANAPOLIS – After years of work, Indiana is weeks away from opening the first half of the Interstate 69 extension thats slated to eventually run from the states southwest corner to Indianapolis.
The Indiana Department of Transportation said Friday that a 67-mile section of the highway from Evansville to near the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center will open Nov. 19. That stretch is roughly the first half of the planned $3 billion, 142-mile highway that was announced in early 2003.
INDOT said the section will connect communities from just northeast of Evansville at I-64 to the U.S. 231 interchange about 20 miles southwest of Bloomington. Construction began in 2008.
The I-69 project has been the subject of numerous lawsuits filed by environmentalists and others who supported an alternative proposal to upgrade existing highways.
Opponents contend the highway, two-thirds of which is being built over never-paved areas, will damage sensitive ecosystems and wont live up to state officials claims of quicker travel times and an economic boost for the rural, isolated region.
Gov. Mitch Daniels said Friday that the states 75-year Indiana Toll Road lease to private operators for $3.8 billion helped the state deliver the first half of the highway years ahead of schedule.
Many people said this interstate expansion wouldnt happen in their lifetime, but its now poised to open and the result will be greater economic opportunity, faster and safer travel, improved connectivity, easier access for leisure travel and more, he said.
Money from the leasing paid for most of the 67 miles of new highway, which cost $620 million – about $80 million under its construction budget, said INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield said.
Over the coming weeks, Wingfield said, crews will finish the section by completing a concrete deck and railing along a 4,400-foot-long bridge through the Patoka River Wildlife Refuge.
Wingfield said the next section – a 27-mile stretch that will run from Crane to just south of Bloomington – is scheduled to open in late 2014. Its projected to cost about $600 million and will cut across a rugged, wooded area filled with caves, springs and sinkholes. Environmentalists warn the area is highly sensitive and harbors populations of the federally endangered Indiana bat.
Wingfield said its uncertain when the final two sections – from Bloomington to Martinsville and Martinsville to Indianapolis – would be complete. Those segments remain in the design and environmental study phase.