First in an occasional series exploring the history behind Interstate 69, Indiana's Billion-Dollar Boondoggle.


Phil Schermerhorn is the only person I've ever talked to about I-69 who claimed to know when and where Hoosier politicians got their first whiff of the pork now popularly called Indiana's "Billion-Dollar Boondoggle."

Schermerhorn had spent most of his long career in state government promoting and defending I-69 as a political appointee in Evan Bayh and Frank O'Bannon's Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT). He rose through the ranks to the post of deputy commissioner, the agency's No. 2 position. I considered him a reliable source on the subject.

The place, Schermerhorn once told me, was Evansville. The time was 1988, when Evan Bayh and John Mutz were running for governor. During a debate, the two were asked about a long-promised direct-link highway between the river city and the state capital. Both politicians, he said, committed themselves on the spot to a new-terrain Interstate through Southwest Indiana.

Bayh was elected, and he commissioned a study on the feasibility of extending Interstate 69 through Southwest Indiana. The study's authors were charged with comparing five separate routes for cost, environmental impact, economic development potential, distance, travel time, and other factors. They were instructed to identify the best one.

In February 1990, 25 months after Bayh took the oath of office, INDOT released the “Donohue Study,” which identified that route as Ind. 57 north from Evansville to Newberry in western Greene County, new-terrain road east to Bloomington, and Ind. 37 north to Indianapolis.

Donohue warned, however, that the proposed I-69 extension would be "the most costly highway built in the state of Indiana since the development of the Interstate system." It concluded that the highway could not be justified on economic grounds.

But that wasn't what Gov. Bayh, Lt. Gov. O'Bannon, and their influential Evansville backers wanted to hear. They cast the Donohue Study's admonitions aside with barely a glance and embarked instead on a 13-year crusade to ram their Billion Dollar Boondoggle through the political system, public interest and the facts be damned.


By the time Phil Schermerhorn told me the Evansville debate story back in 1999, our professional experiences on I-69 had paralleled each other for nearly a decade.

Between 1992 and 1996, I wrote at least two dozen stories on I-69 as a reporter at the Bloomington Herald-Times. While working at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), I moonlighted as a columnist for the Bloomington Independent, where I wrote another dozen or so I-69 columns and stories.

Schermerhorn, who recently died from a longstanding illness, was a senior staffer at INDOT in charge of media relations during my time at the H-T. At one point, I was told, he was the only person at INDOT allowed to talk to me about I-69. He became my supervisor in 1999, when he accepted the director's position in IDEM's Media and Communications Services.

Over the year-and-a-half or so that we worked together, Phil Schermerhorn and I became friends. We talked about I-69, a lot. Our exchanges were always good-natured and civil, more like rival sports fans than political enemies. I recall gigging him when, as members of the IPALCO Golden Eagle Grants Advisory Board, Kathy Klawitter and I got Tom and Sandra Tokarski named Environmentalists of the Year.

It was "Schemmie," as his friends and colleagues in Indianapolis called him, who confirmed my belief that the citizen struggle to influence Frank O'Bannon's decision on I-69 was futile. During one of our debates on I-69, I mentioned that O'Bannon's public silence on the issue during his first term had been deafening, suggesting there might be hope for the opposition. With supreme confidence, Schermerhorn assured me that the governor supported the new-terrain route.

I-69, I came to understand, was always a done deal in the eyes of Bayh-O'Bannon Democrats. This past Jan. 9, Frank O'Bannon declared the new-terrain route originally proposed by Evan Bayh his choice for the I-69 extension, just as Phil Schermerhorn said he would.


O’Bannon’s declaration, however, was anything but the last word on the subject of I-69. Since the governor announced his decision six months ago, the debate has entered the post-O’Bannon era.

A new governor, with full authority to rescind O'Bannon's I-69 decision, will be elected in November 2004. And in recent weeks, the two most-likely major party nominees in that race have both said they want to learn more about the issue. Just last Friday, the odds-on favorite to be Indiana's next governor said he was open to reconsidering O'Bannon's Boondoggle decision.

To help put the new era into historical context, The Bloomington Alternative is launching a new project called I-69: The road to democratic ruin. Today's installment is the Introduction. In the coming weeks and months, the Alternative will publish an occasional series of stories tracing the history of the Bayh-O'Bannon Billion-Dollar Boondoggle.

The primary source material for the series will be the five dozen or so stories and columns I have written since 1991 on I-69. In an earlier time, it might have been called I-69: A people's history.

Steven Higgs is editor of The Bloomington Alternative.