EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) -- Gov. Frank O'Bannon drove south Thursday to deliver the words civic leaders here have long lobbied to hear: Interstate 69 would be built on one of the shortest routes studied.
O'Bannon said the route, which goes through Washington and Bloomington and provides access to Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center, is best for the long-term economic viability of Indiana.
It is also one of the most controversial and expensive routes studied. It must next be considered by the Federal Highway Administration, and will likely face continued opposition and possible lawsuits from environmentalists.
"I believe this route strikes a fair, reasonable, responsible balance among all the considerations that have been raised over the years," O'Bannon said to a room crowded mostly with cheering supporters, some waving I-69 signs.
O'Bannon was heckled by some people in the crowd, including one man who yelled that the governor was a liar. A handful of opponents carried signs saying "Stop New Terrain I-69."
Indiana Transportation Commissioner J. Bryan Nicol predicted it would take from eight to 14 years before the highway was complete, but he stopped short of setting a groundbreaking date.
It will likely take six to nine months to obtain approval from the Federal Highway Administration, Nicol said. The state will then begin acquiring land and building the roadway, Nicol said.
The selected route was among the five finalist routes released by state highway officials in July. O'Bannon said one of its advantages is its vicinity near the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center, the area's second-largest employer with more than 4,000 employees.
The route takes the Indiana 37 corridor from Indianapolis south past Martinsville and Bloomington, then southwest to near Washington and then roughly follows Indiana 57 to Interstate 64 north of Evansville.
The list of finalist routes attracted intense criticism since it did not contain a corridor backed by environmentalists that followed the four-lane U.S. 41 north from Evansville to Terre Haute and then east to Indianapolis on I-70.
"It's a fiscal, economic and environmental disaster. It's a bald political decision and nothing more than that," said John Moore, staff attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago.
Environmentalists have warned that the highway's construction will destroy or harm sensitive cave ecosystems that harbor endangered species such as the Indiana bat. They also fear that road salt, motor oil and antifreeze washing off the highway will seep into the area's porous limestone soil, tainting groundwater residents use for drinking.
Andy Knott of the Hoosier Environmental Council said it was too early to discuss whether lawsuits will be filed.
"Right now, we're still at a point where citizens need to be speaking out on this and talking to their elected officials about it," Knott said.
But John Smith, director of the grassroots anti-I-69 group COUNT US!, said the issue is sure to land in court.
"Everybody knows that's where it's going," Smith said. "And to be quite honest, in this day and age I have a lot of more faith in our court system that I do in our political system."
Matt Meadors, president and chief of the Metropolitan Evansville Chamber of Commerce, said the decision was a victory for future generations of Hoosiers.
"The governor's decision today shows that Indiana will not be left in the wake of the new economy," Meadors said.
The I-69 extension is part of the planned "NAFTA Superhighway" that would cross through eight states to link Canada and Mexico.
Civic leaders in Evansville have pushed for the construction of a direct route to Indianapolis, saying any damage to forests, farm and wetlands would be balanced by safer roads and more economic development.
Many opponents from Bloomington and Terre Haute, however, have said the travel time saved was not worth the environmental damage and questioned how many jobs the highway would attract.
O'Bannon said he was sorry that some Terre Haute residents would be disappointed, but added that the city has been fortunate to have close access to I-70. He noted that plans called for it to be widened to six lanes in upcoming years.
O'Bannon also acknowledged those in Bloomington who oppose the interstate, but said it is needed for the economic stability of the entire state.
State officials have estimated that the chosen route would cost about $1.7 billion to build and save about 26 minutes in travel time between Evansville and Indianapolis.
The U.S. 41/I-70 route, meanwhile, would cost an estimated $810 million to $1.04 billion -- less than the cheapest of the five finalists.
Federal officials have criticized the five route finalists, possibly giving a boost to opponents as they continue to fight the project.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department have both backed the U.S. 41/I-70 route, saying it would do the least amount of environmental damage and still meet the project's top aim of improving travel through southwestern Indiana.
On the Net:
I-69 Official Web site: http://www.i69indyevn.org
Environmental Law and Policy Center: http://www.elpc.org