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Why Did It Take So Long To Connect Bloomington To An Interstate Highway?

A sign for I-69 and State road 37

(WFIU/WTIU News)

With Section 5 of I-69 finished and construction of Section 6 already underway, Bloomington is now connected to the rest of the U.S. with an interstate highway.

But as part of our Inquire Indiana series, Bloomington resident James Brosher (yes, reporter and anchor Barbara Brosher's husband) wanted to know why it took so long.

James brosher
James Brosher (Tyler Lake, WFIU/WTIU News)

Indiana has earned, in more than one way, its reputation as the crossroads of America.

Hoosier Carl Fisher, one of the founders of the Indianapolis Speedway, conceived the Lincoln Highway, one of the first routes to connect the coasts.

And it was a Washington, Indiana man who envisioned a NAFTA superhighway that would connect Mexico to Canada. David Graham lobbied for more than half a century for an interstate that would connect his town to the rest of the country.

But why did it take so long?

"When the interstates were built in Indiana in the 1970’s why did Bloomington never get an interstate?" Brosher asks. 

To find out I spoke with Matt Dellinger, author of the book "Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway."

He says it seems logical that a city like Bloomington, centrally located with a long history of industry and the largest university population in the state, would be connected to the interstate system.

But he points out that Bloomington is the seventh largest city in the state.

"In your question in an assumption that the top seven cities in every state should be connected to each other by an interstate highway," Dellinger says. "If you looked at a map of the U.S. where that assumption would be true, we would have four times as many highways as we have now."

But Brosher is surprised that Bloomington didn’t get special consideration when those building projects were underway decades ago.

"One reason I always thought Bloomington deserved an interstate earlier than they got one, was just because the state’s university is here," Brosher says. 

men working on a road
(Courtesy Indiana Archives)

Dellinger says while there are other considerations at play, the real driver of road construction in America is economics. 

"The building of roads in America has always been about the economy," Dellinger says. 

He says the opposition to construction of I-69, which was especially strong in Bloomington, is a good indicator that for many residents access to an interstate highway didn’t outweigh environmental and quality of life concerns.

And he points out that even though until very recently there wasn’t an interstate highway running through Bloomington, it’s not as if the city was remote or isolated.

"It wasn’t as if no one could get to Evansville, you could drive down through Louisville and over or you could drive over to Terre Haute and down on four-lane highways, but it took 15 more minutes."

Now the city of Bloomington is connected to an interstate highway as construction of I-69 continues northward towards Indianapolis.

But for a lot of Hoosiers what it really means is the commute from Bloomington to Evansville is down, by about 15 minutes.

What question should we answer next?

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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