There seems to be two competing visions of the future of America. The first version pretty much promulgates the status quo with the construction of more highways and the relentless urban sprawl that will almost certainly follow. But there is a competing vision that has captured the imagination of a wide cross-section of Americans. According to a website devoted to the topic "New Urbanism promotes the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities composed of the same components as conventional development, but assembled in a more integrated fashion, in the form of complete communities. These contain housing, work places, shops, entertainment, schools, parks, and civic facilities essential to the daily lives of the residents, all within easy walking distance of each other. New Urbanism promotes the increased use of trains and light rail, instead of more highways and roads. Urban living is rapidly becoming the new hip and modern way to live for people of all ages. Currently, there are over 4,000 New Urbanist projects planned or under construction in the United States alone, half of which are in historic urban centers." It is this clash of philosophies that attracted me to author Matt Dellinger's splendid 2010 book "Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway". In this engaging and exceptionally well-researched book you will discover that there are compelling arguments on both sides of this issue and that reasonable people can come to completely different conclusions. The battle over Interstate 69 proves to be a fascinating case study.
The genesis of the idea for Interstate 69 (also known as the NAFTA Highway) took place over breakfast at a kitchen table in Southwest Indiana back in 1990. A local businessman named David Graham was frustrated that plans to extend Interstate 69 to his neck of the woods had never materialized. Graham firmly believed that extending this highway from Indianapolis to his hometown and beyond was the key to reviving this economically depressed area. One of the people at that breakfast was a man named David Reed who was a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institute, a conservative think tank. Reed took stock of the situation and offered this assessment: "You'll never get to first base unless you can get other people interested in the highway, other states interested. Because nobody gives a damn about Indiana." Reed then ran his finger over a map and pointed out that the current I-69 ran from the Canadian border to Indianapolis. He then proposed that Interstate 69 be extended all the way to Mexico. David Graham saw the wisdom in this idea and within months formed an organization known as the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition to advance the cause. Soon the organization would boast prominent members from a half dozen different states. Although individuals from the different states had competing priorities the ultimate goal of the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition was crystal clear. They sought to solidify a route for I-69 and get the federal government to pay for its construction. Indeed, I-69 was to be for all intents and purposes "the last great American highway". But not so fast! Opposition to the new highway sprung up almost overnight. They say that politics makes strange bedfellows and the opposition to I-69 included environmentalists, ranchers, farmers and anarchists. The opposition was led by a couple from Stanford, Indiana named Sandra and Thomas Tokarski. Matt Dellinger profiles these fine folks and chronicles the strategies they employed. The battle over Interstate 69 would prove to be a knock-down, dragged out affair. I think that it is fair to say that no one on either side of the issue could have predicted that the fight over this highway would go on for as long as it has.
"Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway" presents this great debate in a very fair and even-handed manner. The fact is that Matt Dellinger spent a total of eight years researching this book. You will be introduced to all of the major players in this drama and will come to understand the ramifications of the decisions that are being made all along the way. After all, the economic well-being and the very way of life of a whole host of different constituencies is at stake here. Dellinger also devotes a considerable amount of time to the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) that would eventually become a significant part of the entire I-69 controversy. While I obviously have my own opinions about this issue I came away feeling a certain amount of empathy for just about everyone involved in this struggle. If you are at all concerned about the future direction of our country and the difficult choices we need to make in the coming years then I would heartily recommend "Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway" to you. This is a thoughtful and exceptionally well-written book that will hold your interest from cover-to-cover.
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