Mind-numbing. Insulting. Corrupt.

How else could Indiana citizens characterize the arrogant disregard for the public interest displayed in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for I-69 released last week by the Indiana Departmental of Transportation?

How else could Indiana citizens characterize the unmitigated gall of INDOT Commissioner J. Bryan Nicol, who looked Indiana media in the eye and told them that an honest evaluation of the project's environmental impacts flatly rejects the route that would cause the least environmental damage, and also happens to be the cheapest?

How else could Indiana citizens describe Nicol's announcement that INDOT prefers the most expensive possible routes on the table, that INDOT chooses to shower taxpayer money on politically connected consultants, engineers, contractors, labor unions, land speculators, realtors, lawyers, and other vested interests.

*The EIS that Nicol released last Wednesday at news conferences in Terre Haute, Evansville and Bloomington identifies five "preferred routes" for the highway between Evansville and Indianapolis, with estimated costs as high as $1.76 billion. Three would blaze new trails along largely undeveloped terrain to Ind. 37 between Bloomington and Martinsville. The other two would connect to I-70 just outside Indianapolis via Spencer.

Among the seven non-preferred routes is the one that would upgrade U.S. 41 to I-70 at Terre Haute and has been overwhelmingly favored in polls and public comment by environmentalists and the public, especially in the Terre Haute area.

Nicol acknowledged that the 41-70 route was the least costly and least environmentally disruptive. But it did not make the cut based on "a uniform comparison of all the alternatives under review."

That comparison revolved around nine "performance goals," with three - travel time, improved personal accessibility, and international and interstate freight movement - more heavily weighted. Other criteria included long-term economic growth, congestion relief, and safety.

"We could not in good conscience take that one forward," Nicol said in Evansville of the 41-70 route. "We have to look at the entire picture. We're presenting the entire picture to the public."

*As Nicol jaunted around Southwestern Indiana via helicopter to reassure the politically powerful that the O'Bannon administration is solidly in their pockets on this one, The Bloomington Alternative interviewed attorney John Moore at the Environmental Law & Policy Center of the Midwest. Moore represents the Hoosier Environmental Council and Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads on the I-69 issue.

"As far as INDOT is concerned, environment is the very last principle," Moore said from his office in Chicago.

Moore said the EIS process serves three basic functions on federal and state projects with significant impact on the environment: it identifies purposes and needs, alternatives, and environmental impacts. But federal law does not require that the agency choose the least environmentally disruptive alternative.

"Having said that, the state is not supposed to rig the purpose and need statement, which is the foundation of an EIS, to support the agency's pre-ordained alternative or choice," Moore said. "That is, of course, what they've done here. They've invented a whole range of purposes to support their pre-ordained alternative."

In one sense, Moore said, as an attorney he is relieved by INDOT's unvarnished intention to flout the intent of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the EIS process. "I don't have to argue that the NEPA process here is a sham because INDOT has done it for me," he said.

*O'Bannon spokeswoman Mary Dieter and Nicol said that although the agency has identified preferred alternatives, no decision has been made. "This is not a done deal," Dieter told the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. "None have been rejected at this time," Nicol said in Bloomington. "Everything is still under consideration."

Moore said that while it is customary for agencies like INDOT to identify a single preferred alternative in an EIS, it is not a requirement. He ascribes ulterior motives to INDOT's departure from normal procedure.

"What they're trying to do is obfuscate and confuse people as much as possible by identifying five possible routes," he said, suggesting that money politics, not the public interest, is driving the entire I-69 process in Indiana.

Moore, who has worked on highway issues in various states, said they can be driven by state or federal concerns. When U.S. senators or congressmen want highway projects in their districts, for example, they tend to be federal-government driven.

"In this case, my sense is that it's mostly a state-driven process," he said. "... You have a contractor who botched the first EIS, is doing the second, and has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to campaigns and continues to do so. This is state politics, pure and simple."

Moore was referring to the Evansville-based consulting firm of Bernardin Lochmueller & Associates, a heavy campaign contributor to O'Bannon and the state Democratic Party over the last two state election cycles.

Moore says the buck for this affront to common sense and responsible government stops on the governor's desk.

"In a perfect world, they would have chosen 41-70," he said. "But I never expected them to pick 41-70 because the governor has said all along that he wants a new-terrain road. I don't care if you're Brian Nicol or a saint, you're going to do what the boss wants."

*In his public appearances last week, Nicol made much of the fact that INDOT will allow 90 days for public comment on the EIS, twice what he says federal law requires. Initially, INDOT lawyers had notified Moore and his clients that there would only be 60 days. HEC and CARR argued for 120.

Nicol downplayed the role of public hearings on the EIS scheduled for mid-August in Bloomington, Terre Haute and Evansville. "Public meetings are simply another way to carry public comment," Nicol said in Terre Haute. "A letter sent on the 89th day carries as much weight as a comment made at the meetings."

But Moore said the hasty meeting schedule is another example of INDOT's shameful disregard for public opinion.

"That only gives people a couple of weeks to review this," he said, noting that document is 1,000-pages-plus and, according to INDOT, is among the most detailed and comprehensive ever prepared. " ... Most people are not going to write lengthy comments to INDOT. This is the last chance for people to attend a meeting and orally present their comments."

After the public-comment period is over, INDOT will review the comments and issue a final EIS that will identify a final highway route. Nicol said the agency hopes to complete that process by the end of the year. The agency then will issue a document called a "Record of Decision" that would seal the deal.

"After that, INDOT will start working on the second-tier EIS for the selected road," Moore said. "That's when they start looking at individual properties."

*The Record of Decision is the document that highway opponents can challenge in court, Moore said. And it must be approved by the Federal Highway Administration, which he hopes "will see through INDOT's shenanigans." But those are strategies of last resort for highway opponents.

I-69 is a political issue with enormous implications for the entire state of Indiana, he said. The state will have to ante up 20 percent of the highway's costs, money that will come at the expense of transportation needs in other parts of the state.

"I can guarantee you that a lot of counties are going to be upset about this because it's going to be a real drain on the state budget," Moore said. "If people want INDOT to do the right thing, they're going to have to persuade their state representatives, the governor, and their own political leaders to speak up. That's their best chance for prevailing."

The I-69 EIS is available online at ....