Evansville Courier & Press Washington bureau

Spanning 1,600 miles and crossing through eight states, the proposed Interstate 69 is a project years away from the day when the first truck ever traverses it to journey from Canada to Mexico.

But progress is under way on what has been touted as the North American Free Trade Agreement highway.

In eastern Texas, road signs proclaim the proposed future route of Interstate 69. In Mississippi, highway officials are constructing a small patch of what will be that state's portion of I-69. In Kentucky, highway officials plan to use existing parkways as the future home of the highway.

In Indiana, progress is slower.

More than a decade after it launched its first study on the project, Indiana is still working to select a route. A study scheduled to be completed this summer is hoped to mark the end of the wait.

The state currently has potential routes pared down to five. The most touted includes a new terrain highway that would stretch from Evansville to Bloomington up to Indianapolis - or one using existing highway, a beefed up I-70 to U.S. 41.

Many other states began their quest for I-69 after Indiana did, but have already selected corridors and are studying specific routes without the debate that has plagued Indiana.

"I know they've had a lot of problems in Indiana," said Mayor Bill Revell of Dyersburg, Tenn.

John Schwartz, executive director of the Voices for I-69, which advocates the new terrain highway, is optimistic that this study will be one of the final ones before construction begins. Previous studies, he said, should ensure that state officials have all the knowledge they need to begin construction sooner.

"I think Indiana in a lot of ways is ahead of some states," said James Newland, executive director of the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition, citing the repeated studies on Indiana's project.

Sandra Tokarski, of Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads and a Stanford, Ind., proponent for the I-70 to U.S. 41 route, said the project has not been controversial elsewhere because it's always been about pushing a new terrain route from Evansville through Bloomington to Indianapolis.

First it was an Indianapolis to Evansville highway. Then it was an Indianapolis to Memphis highway. Now it's an Indianapolis to Laredo, Texas, highway, she said.

"This whole thing is hype to try to justify a highway in Indiana that will not pay for itself," she said.

Overall, the highway is split into 32 sections in portions of states including Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The sections can all be studied and designed individually to speed up the construction process.

In Kentucky, officials plan to use the state's existing parkway system as it leaves Evansville and heads toward Tennessee. The designated corridor follows the Breathitt (Pennyrile) Parkway from Henderson, Ky., to the Western Kentucky Parkway to the Purchase Parkway near Kentucky Lake.

It would then go south along it to the Tennessee state line. The parkways will need to be beefed up to meet interstate standards, however. Studies will set the designated route in stone.

In Tennessee, the section of the highway that runs from the Kentucky border to Dyersburg will run on the existing U.S. 51, except for a bypass around Union City, according to Jim Bryson, director of environmental planning for the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

South of Dyersburg and through Memphis, the state is still studying the highway, and state officials expect to hold public hearings this fall. They must decide whether to route the highway on existing highway or to the east or west, but hope to have a corridor selected by the end of the year.

Tennessee's biggest debate has been where to route the highway through Memphis. Some want the highway to run through the city; others want it to bypass the city. Studies will help determine the route.

In Mississippi, a 20-mile section of highway around gambling mecca Tunica, Miss., is already being constructed, according to Claiborne Barnwell, environmental division engineer at the Mississippi Department of Transportation. That section was slated to be another highway project but became part of the I-69 corridor and will be constructed within four years.

The transportation department is also studying how to bring the highway down the U.S. 61 corridor - they will either put I-69 on the existing highway or to the immediate left or right of it.

I-69 will turn west and cross the Mississippi River near Benoit, landing in McGehee, Ark. The transportation department is performing studies on the bridge. They expect both studies to be done some time in 2003.

"We're hungry for this project," said Greenville, Miss., mayor Paul Artman.

In Arkansas, the highway would include a bridge across the Mississippi River. While the corridors have been selected, officials are studying the specific routes.

In Louisiana, state officials are doing studies on a stretch of the proposed highway south of Shreveport in hopes of narrowing down seven potential routes to one, according to Wayne Nguyen, an environmental coordinator for the state. It is about to begin environmental studies on a second portion of the highway. All told, it will run through 120 miles of Louisiana.

In Texas, the state has subdivided its part of I-69 into 11 subsections. Texas has 955 miles of the highway, and splits off into three prongs south of Houston. One prong goes to Laredo, the other to McAllen, the third to Brownsville.

Gabby Garcia, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said environmental studies began earlier this year on all 11 sections of the highway. They will be finished in three to five years, and will define the corridor to help transportation officials "put a line on the map," she said. Texas received $20 million in federal funds to study the highway. Officials say constructing the Texas portion of the highway will cost $6 billion.

Texas highway officials have done some construction near the border area near Brownsville and McAllen. That work is not part of I-69 but will benefit the highway in the future, she said.

John Caruthers Jr., president of the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition, said most of the environmental studies should be finished within two years.

Those studies are funded by past federal transportation bills. He hopes the next transportation act, which expected to pass in 2003, will include money for construction over a six-year span.

© 2001 The E.W. Scripps Co.