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The long and winding history of the NAFTA Superhighway is still being written. Interstate 69 is planned to pass through eight states and provide the only direct route through the Midwest, from Canada to Mexico. While most of those states are upgrading existing roads to interstate standards, Indiana needs to build nearly 100 miles of new road. Governor Mitch Daniels has been fast-tracking construction, but when he leaves office in January, the road will still be less than half finished.
And as Sara Wittmeyer of member station WFIU reports the money is running out.
SARA WITTMEYER, BYLINE: As he drives his big silver Cadillac past Earth movers, bulldozers, and mountains of dirt, Tom Baumert looks like a proud father.
TOM BAUMERT: This is a recently completed overpass.
WITTMEYER: Baumert lives in Washington, Indiana, in the southwestern part of the state. It's a railroad town that flourished in the 19th century when the country depended on trains to move goods and people, and languished when the highway system left it behind. This is where the idea for Interstate 69 developed more than two decades ago and where some of the biggest road supporters live. The project collected dust until Mitch Daniels was sworn in as the governor in 2005.
GOVERNOR MITCH DANIELS: I-69 was clearly one of the promises that had been made or the commitments the state had that there was no prospect of paying for.
WITTMEYER: A year after taking office, Daniels leased the state's toll road to a foreign consortium for 75 years in exchange for a payment of $3.85 billion. He then pledged $700 million toward I-69, making its completion a stated priority. The first part of the interstate in Indiana is already open, and by the end of the year, two-thirds of the road will either be finished or under construction.
DANIELS: There is no other state breaking records 10 years in a row for investment in new public assets.
(SOUNDBITE OF HIGHWAY TRAFFIC)
WITTMEYER: I'm standing on the shoulder of the state road where I-69 will connect just south of Bloomington. There's enough money to build the interstate from Evansville to here, but that leaves a big gap until I-69 picks back up about 40 miles north of here in Indianapolis.
BRIAN GARVEY: I-69 is really the last thing you should be doing.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS CLUCKING)
WITTMEYER: A couple miles away, Brian Garvey wakes up to the sounds of goats and chickens and other farm animals. He's part of a grassroots group advocating against completing I-69. Garvey wonders why the governor is pumping so much money into it when the state can't afford to keep up existing roads.
GARVEY: Creating a whole new project that is essentially will be unsustainable.
WITTMEYER: Governor Daniels leaves office in January. By then, the toll road money will be almost gone, and dwindling gas tax revenues and federal support won't be able to cover the costs of all the state's transportation priorities. I-69 alone could cost another $2 billion. That's on top of the $1 billion that's already been committed. Daniels says his successor will have to find the money to complete the project. Back in Washington, Indiana, Tom Baumert hopes his decades-old dream will come to life.
BAUMERT: I used to say that I'm going to be an old man sitting in the backseat slobbering all over myself whenever they drive me on I-69, but, you know, I might actually drive my own car, drive on this thing yet.
WITTMEYER: The Republican and Democratic front-runners for governor both express support for completing I-69 but won't say where the state will find the money, opening the risk of a stalled promise and the legacy of a governor stranded on the shoulder. For NPR News, I'm Sara Wittmeyer in Bloomington, Indiana.
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