Tom and Sandra Tokarski say Hoosiers across Indiana had better wake up to the economic realities of the I-69 highway extension through Southwest Indiana. Every taxpayer in the state will help pay for this billion-dollar transfer of taxpayer funds to the politically well connected every time they fill up their gas tanks.

And they’d better wake up fast. The Indiana Department of Transportation, Frank O’Bannon and Joe Kernan are fast-tracking the I-69 project, and they do not want the public to know where the money is coming from until it’s too late.

“They want you to believe that there’s a pot of federal money waiting there for Indiana to make up its mind, to select a route,” Tom says. “And that is not the case at all. That’s absolutely misleading. This money will come from Indiana’s regular allotment of federal gas tax money that they give back to us every year, and that is the same pot that other state highway projects come out of.”

“Understanding where the money comes from is the real issue,” Sandra says.

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Federal highway funding works like this.

Motorists pay federal tax on every gallon of gasoline they purchase. The money goes to the federal government in Washington, which redistributes it back to the states according to a formula approved by Congress.

States use the money for road and bridge maintenance and repair, as well as new road and bridge construction. States must provide 20 percent of the money on federally funded projects, which they raise through state gasoline taxes and other funding mechanisms, such as bonding.

In a pattern repeated again last week at a Bloomington news conference by INDOT Director J. Bryan Nicol, state highway officials have deliberately misled the public about the funding issue because they do not want citizens to know the truth, Tom Tokarski says. The entire $1 billion dollars, $1.74 billion, or, more likely, several billion that it will take to build a new-terrain I-69 highway is money that other parts of the state are entitled to but will not receive.

“It is definitely going to impact transportation decisions all over the state if they decide to build this highway out of that money,” Tom says. “And right now, there is no other source of funding for it.”

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Although state highway officials won’t come clean on the funding issue, and statewide media have failed to adequately tell the story to the public, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., has acknowledged reality. In a March 17, 2000, letter to Bloomington City Councilman Andy Ruff, Lugar said I-69 money would come from gas-tax funds distributed through the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA21).

“The bulk of the federal highway funds required to construct the Southwest Indiana Highway will likely come from Indiana’s annual allocation of transportation funds distributed by the U.S. Department of Transportation according to the formula specified in the TEA 21 law,” Lugar wrote.

The editorial board at the Lafayette Journal and Courier also recognized that fact in an editorial last week.

“Even in its least expensive incarnation, the direct route alternative touted by the state starts out $150 million more expensive,” the editors said. “At the high end, that’s $810 million. No wonder local highway and street departments are wondering if a new I-69 extension will leave them hanging in future INDOT budgets.”

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The Tokarskis understand better than anyone the depths to which the O’Bannon administration will sink to thwart public opinion on I-69. Having fought the project almost since the beginning in the early 1990s, they’ve pretty much seen it all.

But even they were taken back by the audacity state officials have displayed in claiming that the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project released by Nicol last week is an honest appraisal of all possible options.

“I was surprised that they eliminated 41-70,” Tom says. “I figured they would carry it through to the end, and then eliminate it.”

But that failure very well could be the fatal flaw in this phase of the I-69 project. The 41-70 route would have connected Evansville with Indianapolis via U.S. 41 to I-70 near Terre Haute. And even though the EIS says it would be the least environmentally disruptive and least costly to build, INDOT effectively eliminated 41-70 from consideration.

Highway opponents have just begun to evaluate the 1,000-page-plus EIS, but they already have found substantial evidence that INDOT “totally cooked the books” against the 41-70 route. They built the entire case on fraudulent assumptions designed to eliminate 41-70 from consideration, not to identify the most responsible routes to pursue.

“This study is totally corrupted,” Tom says, which has raised the ire of community leaders in Terre Haute, who want the highway to pass through their area. Officials there have vowed to carry the message about the political and economic injustice of it all throughout the state.

“They’re fired up,” he says. “I think Terre Haute could have a major impact on the politics of this, if they stay on it.”

And politics, both Tokarskis agree, is the key element at this stage of the game. Court challenges could conceivably delay the project. But they are unlikely to stop it.

“In reality, this is a political issue,” Tom says. “Politics is what will stop this.”

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On the political front, supporters for the 41-70 route must pull out all the stops, the Tokarskis say. In particular, citizens must turn out en masse to public hearings on the EIS scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. on Aug. 19 at Terre Haute South High School, Aug. 20 at Bloomington North High School, and Aug. 21 at Harrison High School in Evansville.

“We really have to have a large outpouring of opposition to this project,” Tom says. “Loud, vocal opposition,” Sandra added, “across the board.”

New-terrain highway opponents also must rally allies across the state: farmers, who must understand that the new-terrain route means the loss of thousands of acres of prime farmland; environmentalists, who must understand that it means the loss of thousands of acres of forest and wetlands; and citizens and local governments, who must understand that they will lose highway funds for roads, streets and bridges in their communities.

“We’re going to have to ask all of them to weigh in again,” Sandra says. “They’re going to have to submit comments again.”

In addition, the Tokarskis say Indiana citizens must demand an extended public-comment period on the EIS. Even though the document is more than a thousand pages, INDOT is only allowing 90 days of public comment on it.

“It’s going to take 90 days just to get through this sucker,” Tom says. Time, he adds, is the opposition's ally, which is why INDOT is so determined to limit the public’s opportunity to understand and comment on the EIS.

“Opposition will continue to build, and they know it,” Tom says. “They know this study is going to generate tremendous opposition. This is our last chance. Once they pick a preferred route, it’s all over.”