Saturday, May 19, 2012

Interstate 69, by Matt Dellinger

Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway, by Matt Dellinger

Interstate 69 is supposed to run from the Michigan/Canadian border to the Texas/Mexican border. "It could be the last great interstate built in America. Or it might never be finished at all." I-69 through Texas is supposed to run where US-59 does today, including through my wife's hometown of El Campo. When we started dating in 1991 (man, we are old!) I noticed several signs reading "Future Interstate Corridor" along the highway; as this was well before the days of Wikipedia I couldn't find much information on the new road. So, when I came across Dellinger's book, I snapped it up!

Unlike the majority of the Interstate system, I-69 was to be created with long segments of brand-new roads rather than upgrading existing ones. For the land-owners and towns affected, this meant serious opportunity and/or serious jeopardy depending on how much money stood to be gained or how much of the family farm would be lost to eminent domain. The detractors largely fall into the NIMBY camp: "We like things the way they are, they say, so take your progress someplace else." Dellinger goes out of his way to be fair to both sides of the argument, but at the end of the day I sided strongly with the people that want the new Interstate. The arguments for the roads admittedly often revolved around the money to be made rather than service to the public, but the arguments against were all emotion and whining—very little rational thought there.

The status of the road today is inconsistent. Large stretches of it are open and active today, but it is far from contiguous. Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas all have highways labeled I-69, but outside of the roughly 350 miles between Indianapolis and Port Huron there isn't a single length of road over 100 miles long out of the 1700 miles of the intended route. The long parts that aren't built are largely due to the opposition that arose through the various states.

The conclusion was interesting, as Dellinger doesn't really take sides, but instead ends on questions and possibilities. "What if I-69 is never built? What if it remains an awkward, half-finished monument to the people who've tried to build it and the people who've tried to stop it? Some will say the lack of wherewithal and resolve is a sign of a once-great nation faltering. And others will say it's progress, a welcome signal that our highway binge is done and we're ready to rebuild the rails and sidewalks we've ignored for too long." This open-minded approach will probably annoy hard-core believers on both sides of the transportation debate, but I thought not judging in favor of either was fitting for a road that is only partially constructed.

First Sentence:
You have to hand it to Haynesville: The town keeps its chin up.

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