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Associated Press
Indianapolis resident Bill Boyd stands on a hill overlooking a stretch of southern Indiana’s Greene County cleared for the Interstate 69 extension slated to run from Evansville to Indianapolis.

I-69 portion opens, but state out of road money

– The nation’s longest new highway in the works – a nearly $3 billion interstate to link rural southwest Indiana with the state’s capital – is now half-built and ready for traffic, but lingering questions of when the project’s remaining miles will open and how they’ll be paid for could cloud its future.

After four years of work, the first 67 miles of the Interstate 69 extension’s planned 142 miles will open to cars and trucks Monday following a ribbon-cutting and a caravan Gov. Mitch Daniels will lead north along the newly paved stretch, which cost about $900 million.

Washington, Ind., Mayor Joe Wellman, whose city of 12,000 will be served by one I-69 interchange, believes Monday’s opening will spur development and give residents a safer trip to Indianapolis than the winding, hilly state roads that have long been their main link to the capital.

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” Wellman said. “Right now, you’ve got a lot of stops and starts – stoplights and small communities you have to go through.”

Daniels, whose second term ends in January, will leave office with his successor, Mike Pence, facing the task of completing and paying for the remainder of I-69 to Indianapolis because the funds Indiana tapped to pay for most of the highway’s first half are nearly gone.

The state devoted about $700 million to the project from the $3.8 billion it collected by leasing the Indiana Toll Road to a private consortium. But that money has already been spent or allocated.

Pence’s spokeswoman, Christy Denault, said the governor-elect is committed to finishing I-69, which he views as the “missing spoke” in the network of highways linking the state’s different regions.

Aside from tapping state and federal gas tax funds, she said Pence plans to explore a variety of “innovative financing mechanisms” but has no plans to seek an increase in the state’s fuel tax or to consider tolls.

The Hoosier Environmental Council, which has sued to try to halt work on the highway, warns it will damage sensitive ecosystems.

Tim Maloney, the council’s senior policy director, predicts many motorists traveling between Indianapolis and Evansville won’t be using the half-completed highway. He said Interstate 70 and U.S. 41 will remain their favored path, particularly once a Terre Haute bypass under construction is completed.

State officials hope to open by late 2014 a 27-mile stretch of I-69 now under construction that will extend to Indiana 37 at Bloomington – a segment slated to cost $600 million.

The high cost of that relatively short segment stems from the fact that it will cut across a rugged, wooded area dotted with a geological honeycomb of caves, springs and underground rivers.

Maloney worries sediment from construction – and road salt, auto oil and spills along the completed segment – could cause serious environmental harm in that area.

In rural Greene County, the highway’s next stretch has already taken a bite out of about a third of the 47-acre farmstead where Indianapolis residents Bill and Jan Boyd had planned to eventually retire.

That land, which Jan Boyd’s grandparents bought in 1919, boasts their old farmhouse, a cattle pasture and a weathered smokehouse.

The Boyds’ land had overlooked a wooded hill abutting a wetland. But in late March, after the couple lost an eminent domain challenge to Indiana’s claim to their land, a state contractor moved through and cut a swath of old trees to clear the way for earth-moving equipment.

“How do you live with a highway 200 feet from your front door?” Jan Boyd asked. “There’s going to be an interstate with hundreds or thousands of cars and trucks running through here day and night, 24 hours a day.”

When the segment to Bloomington is complete, I-69 will span 94 miles, a stretch considered the longest portion of highway built in the U.S. in decades over land never before paved.

But when the highway’s remaining 48 miles will open remains in question, along with the final price tag.