A few years ago, it was hard to see how they could win.

A strange-bedfellows coalition of environmentalists, farmers and taxpayer groups had organized in opposition to plans for a new terrain I-69 highway. They were taking on Gov. O'Bannon and business interests intent on building the road, no matter how many family farms, wetlands and tree-huggers were in the path. Surely, it seemed, power and money would win out, and the new terrain highway would be built.

Andy Knott of the Hoosier Environmental Council: "We have momentum on our side." But lately, it's becoming difficult to see how the I-69 opponents can lose.

Earlier this month, leaders of what is now Indiana's strongest grass-roots coalition went to the Statehouse and dumped a load of almost 17,000 letters and postcards, along with petitions bearing some 138,000 signatures, all opposing the new terrain routes. Then the Environmental Protection Agency formally lodged objections to the routes favored by O'Bannon's Department of Transportation. The EPA's letter stated that upgrading the existing U.S. 41/I-70 corridor, the alternative preferred by environmentalists, is far less expensive and has "at least two to three times less impact on multiple resources."

In another development so odd one wonders how it could have been coincidental, one of the five preferred new terrain routes would actually cut into several hundred acres of the Decatur Township family farm of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar. Lugar reacted with an angry letter written on personal stationery to O'Bannon's transportation director, in which the senator called the plan "a tragic public policy and environmental error."

These events dominated the talk among I-69 opponents gathered for a lively rally last Saturday in a Northside elementary school gymnasium. The group shared food prepared on farms threatened by an I-69 extension and then marched several hundred-strong, led by a 13-foot puppet called "Apple Butter Mama," to the nearby Governor's Mansion. Frank and Judy O'Bannon were not home to receive the covered dishes of pumpkin pie, chicken casserole and salad, but the message likely got through.

Is Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan really going to wage a difficult 2004 run for governor with angry environmentalists - not to mention a 13-foot puppet - following him to every campaign event? Assuming a new terrain route is chosen that doesn't impact the Lugar family farm, is the senator going to be able to follow his heated objections to the highway's intrusion on his own property with quiet acceptance of the road's destruction of his constituents' land? And how is the construction of a hundred-plus miles of new road going to survive resistance from environmentalists willing to chain themselves to bulldozers, if not something more drastic, in order to block the path through the farms and forests?

"We have momentum on our side," Andy Knott of the Hoosier Environmental Council told the crowd at Saturday's rally. Even with that optimism, Knott is quick to point out the struggle must continue for several more stages. O'Bannon is scheduled to issue a recommended route to the Federal Highway Administration by early next year, the feds must approve the route and then detailed environmental impact studies will begin, all before the first shovelful of dirt is turned over.

But it is getting harder to see how a new terrain I-69 will ever happen.

Fran Quigley is a contributing editor to NUVO, where this article originally appeared - ....