A federal agency said it won't step in to resolve the dispute between state and local officials over a hotly debated section of the Interstate 69 extension in southern Indiana.
The Federal Highway Administration's announcement comes as most of the state's congressional delegation has asked Bloomington's mayor to push for support of the project.
The agency said in written responses to questions from the Bloomington-Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization that state officials need that group's backing to spend federal money on a 1.75-mile section of interstate intended link with Indiana 37 near Bloomington.
But The Herald-Times reported that federal officials also acknowledged the state's right to withhold federal money for road projects in Bloomington if the planning group doesn't back the I-69 project.
"This is an issue that remains to be resolved between the state and the MPO," the federal agency said. "It is not the role of the FHWA to direct either party to a take a specific position regarding these types of issues; rather, we encourage the state and the MPOs to work together to resolve these types of matters in a cooperative manner."
Members of the Bloomington group's policy committee voted in May to exclude I-69 construction from a plan covering fiscal years 2012-15, citing concerns about how it will be funded, its environmental impact and the location of interchanges. The state highway department asked the group to reconsider, and the Bloomington panel is expected to take up the matter again in November.
Richard Martin, chairman of the panel's I-69 subcommittee, said he believed the federal agency's answers made it clear that the local group had leverage in discussions about the highway.
Construction work is under way on much of a nearly 70-mile stretch of the highway's route from near Evansville to just outside the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center southwest of Bloomington, with that section expected to be finished by the end of 2012.
State officials are aiming for construction to start in the coming months on the section from Crane to Bloomington, which is estimated to cost $387 million.
Martin said the federal share of the segment being blocked near Bloomington is about $25 million, which the state would have to cover if it doesn't gain local consent.
In a letter to Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan, Sens. Richard Lugar and Dan Coats and seven of Indiana's nine congressmen asked that the local group change its mind on the 142-mile Indianapolis-to-Evansville highway, which is estimated to cost nearly $3 billion to build.
"Completion of the I-69 project will enhance Indiana's interstate network by linking all four corners of the state with Indianapolis," the letter said. "The direct route from Evansville to the state capitol will create a corridor that will encourage private sector investment and help create much-needed jobs for our fellow citizens."
The Associated Press left a message Monday for Kruzan's spokesman seeking comment.
Those signing the letter include Republican Reps. Todd Young and Larry Bucshon, whose districts include nearly all the highway's route, the Evansville Courier & Press reported. Those not signing it were northern Indiana Democratic Reps. Pete Visclosky and Joe Donnelly, who is seeking his party's nomination for Lugar's Senate seat.
The letter said the congressmen recognize that Kruzan has "legitimate concerns," but Bloomington should recognize the "unique opportunity to support the entire state of Indiana."
The Indiana Department of Transportation said it hoped to begin construction on a 27-mile stretch of the road from near the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center to just south of Bloomington by the end of the year.
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