A comment from the back of the public library auditorium in Greenfield brought the house down with applause — "Tell the governor we do not want this road."
The same citizen made two other points in his allotted three minutes that again garnered near unanimous agreement: "We don't always use money as the gauge of economic development. We value the rural quality of life here in Hancock County."
Now, those are Hoosier values.
So went the meeting — the first conducted by the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to hear comments about the proposed Indiana Commerce Connector (ICC). The boisterous crowd was in no mood to hear the usual blather from the county economic development director who kicked off the public comment period. After a chorus of cat calls of "three minutes," he sat down.
Two days after the November election, Governor Mitch Daniels announced the ICC proposal as a means to improve Indianapolis traffic and boost economic development in the surrounding counties. This was in spite of a 2005, $850,000 INDOT commissioned study which concluded that such a beltway would not generate much economic growth or relieve congestion on interstate highways in Indianapolis.
The highway would be constructed as a public-private partnership -- a detestable term shortened to 3P by the state boys — and the up-front lease money would pay for the completion of I-69.
In the cocky style that only Mitch can deliver, he emphasized that this project would be financed by his favorite revenue source: "other peoples' money." Meanwhile, Indiana Toll Road users are paying back $120 billion to a private operator for a one-time payment of $3.8 billion. Whose money?
The 75-mile rural toll road -- a new terrain highway -- would connect I-69 near Pendleton and sweep through six of the donut counties around Marion County, passing near Martinsville and terminating at I-70 near the Indianapolis Airport. Hell, this is I-69!
The perplexing problem of getting I-69 traffic -- estimated at 40,000 cars per day -- around Indianapolis had been solved. After all, that was a condition placed on the project by the Federal Highway Administration that, heretofore, had never been addressed publicly.
Imagine the creativity of "hardly anybody's man" Mitch in generating a scheme to build that part of I-69 as a private toll road in order to receive up-front money to pay for the rest of the NAFTA highway — Martinsville to Crane. It sounds like what someone termed "crapitalism."
Blood money from the lease of the Indiana Toll Road earmarked for construction of I-69 from Crane to Evansville — a cost of $900 million — is in the bank, according to INDOT.
Legislation authorizing the ICC, SB1, was the first bill out of the gate in this legislative session, when it was introduced by Senator Thomas Wyss. It would transfer tolling authority from I-69 to the ICC and to the Illiana Tollway, another 3P proposed for Northwest Indiana.
At the series of meetings, INDOT officials are playing dumb -- invoking "I don't know" often, including when asked of the highway's location. That is reason enough to be skeptical. And worried.
"If citizen input shows this doesn't make sense, we won't build it," Deputy Commissioner Gary Abell said. "We're at the beginning of the process."
Citizens of rural communities in the ICC path are buying none of the canard. And they are turning out — 250 in Greenfield, 350 in Shelbyville, 400 in Franklin. The comments are the same in all the venues -- about eminent domain, loss of farmland, a degraded quality of life that interstate highways bring, termination of county roads, splitting of farms and neighbors, increased air pollution, loss of tax base...
Some are memorable.
"My property is not for sale at the appraised value."
"Last year, Lt. Governor Skillman gave us a farming community award. This year they want to destroy our farmland."
Candidate Daniels emphasized that INDOT was the worst-run agency in the state. He has not changed that condition one iota. Secrecy, lies, half-truths and deceit are the norm.
There is even growing concern that the meetings are a smoke screen. Roman rulers staged events in the coliseum to divert the attention of citizens from the real issues. INDOT's diversion has replaced the lions with lies.
The governor has pointed out that these meetings were expected to draw opponents, and has insinuated that it has little effect. What else could he say when his minions reported such widespread opposition? Just as in the new terrain I-69 meetings, critics are marginalized.
After the last comment allowed by INDOT at the Greenfield meeting, a citizen rose and conducted a straw poll. "How many are for this road?" he shouted. I counted five hands.
At the Franklin meeting, a citizen commented, "I don't for one minute believe that the input I have tonight is going to change anything."
Steve Bonney can be reached at email@example.com.