Paving NAFTA's Highway

The grand idea behind Interstate 69, the proposed NAFTA highway, was to improve commerce between Canada, the US, and Mexico, and all of their 400 million people and $6.5 trillion economies.

I-69 already runs from Canada, through Michigan, to Indianapolis. South of there, however, only Mississippi has begun new construction.

Since its authorization by Congress five years ago, I-69 has had no real timetable and no real money. It could end up being more a boondoggle than a boon to continental trade.

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The highway has been stuck in a quagmire of competing interests. The eight states through which the planned 1,800-mile road would run also continue to wrangle over just where it should be put.

For instance, states want the benefit of commerce and industry brought to regions that don't now have access to a major highway. Such local goals aren't in sync with the road's original purpose - to handle a doubling of trade between the US and Mexico, much of it moved by truck.

Shaving four hours' travel time off the trip between Indiana and the Mexican border (which I-69 is supposed to do) isn't worth all the angst and other tussles, including lengthy feasibility studies in Indiana and charges of construction pork.

Next year, the Transportation Department will ask Congress for $6.6 billion for the project. The rest of the $8.5 billion price tag will need to come from states, already struggling with big budget deficits of their own.

No doubt a NAFTA trade corridor can rely on more than one road. When Mexico improves its handling of rail freight, for instance, Kansas City's north/south rail routes can help get some trucks off the road. Kentucky opted for improving existing roads, rather than building new ones. Other states (including Indiana) could consider similar options.

Congress, before voting on I-69 funding, can weigh such options, and see if a mix of solutions might achieve the same purpose.

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