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Interstate 69

December 2, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I wrote last week about Ian Rankin’s latest crime novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, and the return of his now-retired Edinburgh detective John Rebus. I finished it two Thursdays ago, but even before the end, I was planning my next book.

I had in mind a book I almost read two years ago, about the politics surrounding the building of a new interstate highway that would run from Canada to Mexico. The problem was, I couldn’t remember the name. More to the point, I knew the name was Interstate xy, I just didn’t remember the values of x and y. I looked at maps, studied which north-south interstates ran the length of the country, did searches on them and politics, or them and controversy, forgetting that the interstate I wanted to read about didn’t exist. Hence, doing a search on existing interstates wasn’t going to get me far.

Disappointed, I turned to another book I had in mind, Robert Sullivan’s My American Revolution, which came out in September. I started reading it even before finishing Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Not because I was tiring of Rebus. On the contrary. But on awakening one night and realizing I couldn’t fall asleep, I decided to read for a bit. I didn’t have an e-version of the Rankin book. It’s not available in the US yet, so that my only recourse if I wanted to read it right away was to order the print version from the UK. Not wanting to turn the light on, I grabbed my iPad, downloaded the free initial part of My American Revolution, and began reading.

When I finished Standing in Another Man’s Grave, I continued with My American Revolution. Then, on Saturday (last weekend, two days after finishing Rankin), I struck on a search that led me to the correct interstate: 69. The book is Matt Dellinger’s Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. I can’t remember what I read about it two years ago, but at the least I read this, from the briefly noted reviews in an issue of the New Yorker in August 2010:

Dellinger’s nimble book chronicles the history of a largely unbuilt highway—if completed, it would stretch from the Canadian to the Mexican border—and tells the stories of the communities that stand to profit or to be imperilled by it. The narrative is sprawling by design, but the stories of determined individuals stand out from the complicated legislative history: David and Linda Stall bring together people in rural towns to protest the Trans-Texas corridor; Sandra and Thomas Tokarski fight against I-69 in Indiana from its initial proposal, in 1991, through the emergence of an anarchist anti-road movement in 2005. Most memorable are the impressions of faded conurbations, such as the newly tourist-friendly Clarksdale, Mississippi, and desperate El Dorado, Arkansas, where Murphy Oil promises to help pay for the college education of students who graduate from the public high schools.

I’m pretty sure I also read a blog post at the time from some prominent political writer recommending the book, based on which I downloaded the free initial portion, but wasn’t taken in by it. Nonetheless, ever since, I’ve had the nagging feeling that I should have given it more of a chance. This time, on rediscovering the title, I downloaded it and began reading. I was quickly immersed. Robert Sullivan would have to wait.

Here’s more, from the book’s website:

Interstate 69 is an enlightening journey through the heart of America. With this epic tale of one vast and controversial road project, Matt Dellinger brings to life the country’s complex political, social, and economic landscape.

The 1,400-mile extension of I-69 south from Indianapolis, if completed, will connect Canada to Mexico through Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. This so-called “NAFTA Highway” has been in development for two decades, and while segments are under construction today, others may never be built. Eagerly anticipated by many as an economic Godsend, I-69 has also been opposed by environmentalists, farmers, ranchers, anarchists, and others who question both the wisdom of building more highways and the merits of globalization.

Part history, part travelogue, Interstate 69 reveals the surprising story of how this extraordinary undertaking began, introduces us to the array of individuals who have worked tirelessly for years to build the road—or to stop it—and guides us through the many places the highway would transform forever: from sprawling cities like Indianapolis, Houston, and Memphis, to the small rural towns of the Midwestern rust belt, the Mississippi Delta, and South Texas.

That “Dellinger brings to life the country’s complex political, social, and economic landscape” is a fair description, and it’s what makes the book worth reading.

At the time that the book’s action begins, twenty years ago, I-69 already existed, but didn’t go far. It began at the south end of Lake Huron, where Ontario and Michigan meet at Port Huron, then headed west to central Michigan, through Flint and Lansing, where it turned south-southwest, finding its way, via Fort Wayne, Indiana, to the outer northeast edge of Indianapolis. The book’s opening sections deal with some business leaders in southern Indiana who had long hoped for a highway that would continue southwestwards from Indianapolis to Evansville — at the south end of the state on the Ohio River — via Bloomington and Washington.

With NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) in the works and the election of Clinton and Gore, suddenly the political picture changes. Why not an interstate that runs from the Mexican border to Canada? Why not one that goes through other underserved, primarily rural areas? It could be sold as the NAFTA highway. And it would just happen to go through Arkansas and Tennessee. (Arkansas and Tennessee? Clinton and Gore? Propitious timing.)

We switch to Shreveport, in northwest Louisiana, where leaders immediately see the benefit of an interstate that would connect them to Houston to the southwest and Memphis to the northeast. The process of lobbying for a new interstate begins.

Part I of the book sets this stage. In part II, we take a closer look at the situation in southern Indiana, where boosters are opposed by a Bloomington couple who live on a farm that the new interstate will go through (though their opposition began long before this became evident). What will promote local business development best? How do we best protect rural interests? Farms? Interstates cut farms to pieces, with a few “lucky” winners having land at the exits that can be turned into gas stations and motels. Dellinger never takes sides. He lays out the issues, allowing people involved in the years-long battles to have their say.

Part III is my favorite. We head into the south, spending time with people in Paducah, Kentucky, then Dyersburg, Tennessee, then Memphis, followed by its suburbs in northwest Mississippi. Here we come upon an interesting issue. What’s the best way to get from Memphis down to Shreveport? A look at the map might suggest that you want to cross the Mississippi into Arkansas, then drive southwest across Arkansas into Louisiana. The thing is, the Republican congressional victories of 1994 brought Trent Lott into power as Senate majority whip and, a year later, Senate majority leader. And Trent Lott just happened to be from Mississippi. He didn’t mind letting it be known that there wouldn’t be an I-69 that headed straight over the river from Memphis. It would have to come down river into Mississippi and the delta.

Dellinger accordingly heads down river too, with visits to Tunica (with its casinos), Clarksdale (home of the blues), and a poor area a ways south where residents on the Mississippi and Arkansas sides of the river had long hoped to see a new bridge built. I-69 planning gave them new hope. These communities come alive in Dellinger’s treatment.

Part IV takes us to Texas, but Dellinger no longer follows the anticipated route of I-69 from town to town. Rather, the story shifts, because Texas has bigger fish than I-69 to fry. As we enter the governership of Rick Perry and a newly Republican state legislature, a revolution in highway planning is underway. Great population growth requires new highways. The federal gas tax has not been increased in years and isn’t sufficient. Privatization provides the means. This becomes a major strand in the rest of the book, privatization having attracted interest around the country. We learn about Houston’s needs and the arguments for more ring roads and further sprawl versus mass transit. The economic needs of border towns such as McAllen and Harlingen on the Rio Grande that have no interstate, in contrast to Laredo, from which I-35 heads north through San Antonio and Austin to Dallas (and ultimately Duluth, Minnesota, with access to Canada — an alternate NAFTA highway). I-69 could connect them to Houston, a winner for both ends.

Part V finds us back in Indiana, where new governor Mitch Daniels is a proponent of privatization. He sells rights to the Indiana Toll Road (I-90) to a Spanish-Australian partnership (the Spanish company Cintra becomes a major character in the book) and anticipates building the long-awaited Indianopolis-Evansville portion of I-69 through a private-public partnership. Anarchists enter the stage, protests are held in an attempt to stop construction north from Evansville, the original proponents of I-69 are now in their 80s, those still alive. The book comes to an end, the story unfinished.

What a fascinating story it is, with local, state, regional, and national politics all interwoven. Such interweaving is inevitable, but not necessarily plain to see. Dellinger succeeds in laying bare the warp and the woof, at the same time revealing how they intersect with individual lives.

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