The I-66 plan: Now the real story can be told about how Sikeston tried to 'steal' a highway project

Thursday, April 17, 2008

By Josh Bill

In his op-ed piece in the Southeast Missourian last Thursday, Walt Wildman referred to the 20-year-old I-66 project. This grand scheme was to build a coast-to-coast interstate highway between Washington, D.C., and San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Among other things, he said, "The I-66 project has now been delayed for many years by such obstructions like Sikeston not keeping its word." I was named specifically as responsible for that, and our mayor was accused of trying to "steal" the I-66 project.

And so it seems that after all these years, our plot has been skillfully uncovered. Yes, it's true. Despite the full support of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California for this project, Sikeston has prevailed in thwarting this effort.

It's a relief, in a way, that it's finally been disclosed. Throughout these 20 years, it's been a veritable textbook study in the use of raw political muscle. And, the story can now be told.

It's hard to stop an idea whose time has come, but we did it.

True, the Congress of the United States had announced some 10 years prior to the I-66 concept that the interstate system of this county was essentially complete.

And, true, the route chosen by its founding fathers traveled through some of the most remote and least populated sections of this country (western Kansas, southern Colorado, Utah and Nevada).

And true, the largest single metropolitan community along the 2,400-mile route was Wichita, Kan. (Springfield, Mo., also is along the route, and the city in the No. 3 spot may well have been Cape Girardeau).

But we don't think that any of those factors should deny us the right to claim victory in stopping this boon to mankind.

Nationally, there was one particularly tough nut. The entire California congressional delegation was full square behind bringing more traffic into their state. They wanted more cars and trucks. We made short work of them with several letters to the editor in the Sikeston Standard Democrat. They knew when they'd met their match and backed right off.

Locally, it was even more intense. The Illinois Department of Transportation and every governor of Illinois during this dramatic period brought the full weight and power of his office to bear in support. Under the battle-cry, "No expense is too great for Southern Illinois," they were formidable opponents.

The city of Paducah, Ky., too was hard to talk out of having a four-lane highway that would encourage its shoppers to drive to Cape Girardeau. Paducah doesn't like sales-tax revenue.

The Sierra Club was a real challenge. If your readers never heard of the mass demonstrations by this group demanding that a four-lane highway be constructed through the Shawnee National Forest, then they can appreciate what it took to suppress those stories in the media during these past 20 years.

The Missouri Department of Transportation was another challenge. It always wanted to spend $5 million a mile blasting a four-lane corridor along the route of Highway 34 rather than spend $1 million a mile along the straight, flat terrain of the U.S. 60 corridor. Volumes could be written on what it took to divert them.

Neither did Kansas City nor St. Louis stand idly by. They were nearly adamant that projects in their regions be postponed in deference to what they called "The Pathway to Piedmont." Holding them off got downright ugly.

Let's get serious. Walt Wildman, and those who've signed his paycheck for the past 20 years, are trying to blame someone else for their own failure. They know full well that the agreement 20 years ago was nothing more than two groups agreeing not to get in each other's way.

To four-lane U.S. 60, we had to lobby the state. To build a coast-to-coast interstate, I-66 supporters had to lobby the feds. Once we agreed to not to fight each other, then-congressman Bill Emerson did what he could to help us both.

In 1992, Emerson got a $1.25 million feasibility study funded to study a coast-to-coast interstate. The study concluded it wasn't feasible. It's just as simple as that. So what was Bill Emerson then, or U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson now, to do? Get tens of billions appropriated for a plan deemed not to be feasible? No one has that kind of power in Congress. No one should.

Exactly what Wildman and his benefactors expected us to do is far from clear. Walt, if any of you ever expected us to do the heavy lifting to get you funding for a highway that would bypass us by 25 miles, you should seek help immediately.

As things turned out, there is a four-lane east-west corridor through our region, and it's called U.S. 60. All contracts have now been let to complete U.S. 60 by 2010.

The reality is that there was never going to be a coast-to-coast I-66, and there never will be. Walt, the adults in the room always knew that. You guys slipped on a couple of pads and decided you were ready for the NFL.

Your expensive consultant didn't tell you that because he wanted his fee. You and your backers got taken for a ride and played like a fiddle, but not by us. You hired people to tell you what you wanted to hear, and they did. We just didn't tell you any different.

No one on this end was ever going to embarrass you publicly. This is your play, not ours.

In 20 years, not a single foot of concrete has been poured under the shield "I-66." No one can steal something that doesn't exist and never will.

We're sorry, of course, that so much investment in the land along these rights of way has not paid off. But there always was an element of risk.

Walt, most of your neighbors in Cape Girardeau and Jackson have always had a reputation for being strong-minded but practical.

Southeast Missouri is not going to get two four-lane, east-west corridors. It's just not going to happen.

Given this new reality, can we now begin a dialogue on what will benefit our entire region?

Do you think Procter & Gamble cares about community bragging rights, or getting their products to market?

Even Rip Van Winkle woke up after 20 years.

Josh Bill owns an insurance agency in Sikeston, Mo., where he has served as a city councilman and mayor.

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