January 10, 2003
Why Extending I-69 is So Important
The interstate highway map of Indiana forms a pattern that resembles a spoked wheel, centered on Indianapolis. Except that one spoke is missing. Interstate 69, coming southwest from Fort Wayne, stops in the center of the state, leaving the southwest corridor to Evansville empty of interstates. That much is familiar to all of us.
But now let's look at a different kind of map -- a map of economic, rather than geographic, contours. Not all parts of the state are equally well off, in terms of their standard of living, as the detailed economic information from the 2000 Census makes very clear. And the mapping of counties with the highest fraction of low-paying jobs also forms a pattern. The counties with low household earnings are predominantly found in the southwest corner of the state.
Indeed, the sign on southbound State Road 37 welcoming you to Monroe County also serves as another sort of gateway -- to the lowest-paying area of the state. Almost 31 percent of all households in Bloomington earned less than $20,000 per year in 1999. Household earnings represent the total earnings of all family members.
But Monroe County has plenty of neighbors to commiserate with on this score. Of the 10 counties with the highest fraction of low-earning households, nine are located in the southwest quadrant of the state. At $31,362, the median earnings of households in Knox County, the state's lowest in 1999, were scarcely half of what the median households made in counties bordering Indianapolis.
The connection between the highway map, and this economic map, is crystal clear. Trade and transportation have been directly linked with economic prosperity since the days when the ancient Greeks first set off in boats on the Mediterranean. In an era of high tech logistics, where specialized products of every kind whisk along in air freight containers and trucking terminals, is it any wonder that the corner of the state not served by interstate highways has fallen behind?
Now that the opportunity to address that situation -- the Federal proposal to extend I-69 south to Mexico -- has fallen into our laps, some would have us believe that this timeless relationship between prosperity and access to transportation no longer holds. The Bloomington City Council, in a message to the governor, has proclaimed that their town would lose its "special" quality of life were an interstate highway to come roaring by their doors.
Thus the message from the leadership of a city where workers earn only 73 cents for every dollar earned by the average worker nationally is simple -- take your road and your commerce someplace else.
If that attitude towards infrastructure development had prevailed a few hundred years ago, we might be still be huddling around fires and communicating with smoke signals today. Instead we have the sacrifices -- both economic and environmental -- of earlier generations to thank for the roads and infrastructure that have helped us produce the wealth to support the modern society we've long been accustomed to.
A new road is an important piece of what it will take to bring the standard of living in southwestern Indiana up to the level enjoyed elsewhere in the state. If you think that can be done without a new road, you are denying the facts on the ground. And if you don't think raising standards of living is important, then you shouldn't consider yourself a leader.
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