This is the last in a series of stories on the history behind Interstate 69 in Indiana.
The chasm between Indiana Democrats and ordinary citizens on the economic wisdom of building an interstate highway from Evansville to Bloomington developed in the earliest days of the I-69 struggle. Landowners, business people, and at least one politician sounded the Indiana-can't-afford-I-69 alarm early, and often.
"Where's all that money going to come from?" Peggy Hunter, the owner of a Morgan County motel, asked during an interview for a December 1991 Herald-Times year-in-review story. "It's our money, isn't it?"
In another article two weeks later, French Lick's Democratic State Rep. Jerry Denbo summarized his party's position on the question: "Southwestern Indiana has been left out for far too long. I know it's going to be expensive, but we're entitled to our fair share."
The PR team in the governor's office, of course, wouldn't have dared say it that crudely. But that was the essence of Bayh-O'Bannon Democrats' position on I-69 from the outset. It was the Southwest Indiana growth machines' turn.
Denbo expressed his our-fair-share sentiments well before Terre Haute joined the new-terrain fight and the 41/70 alternative was formally proposed. But it was already clear that those who would have to ante up their money, businesses, and land for the most expensive highway built in the state recognized the need for a common-sense alternative - even those who stood to profit from the plan.
"I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon," Bill Rahn, manager of Perdue Farms Indiana operations in Washington, Ind., said in the December 1991 article. "I think people are realizing that you just can't keep spending the money."
Indeed, throughout the pivotal year of 1992, citizens from all walks showed that they understood the essential truth proclaimed in the 1990 Donohue Study - no interstate highway in Southwest Indiana could be justified on economic grounds. And there were signs that Bayh-O'Bannon Democrats' refusal to accept that reality was wearing thin with the citizenry.
"It's really the political boondoggle that bothers me," Monroe County landowner Clark Sorenson told me for a February 1992 H-T article titled "Evansville road foes carry on fight."
Peggy Hunter and her husband had purchased the Hillview Motel just south of Martinsville on State Road 37 after retiring from the Post Office in 1987, with 20-plus years experience each. A mere four years later, the retirees sensed that their livelihood was threatened by the Democrats' 1991 announcement that 37 eventually would be reconfigured into Interstate 69, with virtually no chance for direct access to their motel.
"I just don't know what would happen if they cut off our access," Hunter told me. "Are people going to have to drive two miles along a frontage road to get to our motel?"
Tim Wilson, owner of Tim Wilson Chevrolet and Larry Bird Ford, strategically located on 37 in Martinsville, echoed similar concerns about I-69's impact on his businesses: "No doubt about it, the highway is an important asset to our business. We get lots of people who stop at the stop light, see a car on our lot, and stop in."
At that time in January 1992, some in Southwest Indiana were pointing out the sheer economic folly of the state proposing a new-terrain I-69 route parallel to, and 20 miles due north of, an already existing highway in need of improvements, U.S. 50.
"Everything is there to do what they want to do," said Tom Tokarski from Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR). "They could do it with a whole lot less expense, a whole lot less opposition, and a whole lot less environmental damage."
Twenty of the roughly 60 miles from Washington to Bedford to Bloomington was already four-lane highway. And the state owned another 15 miles of right-of-way of the two-lane that was left.
"Don't ask me for a rational explanation for it," Republican State Sen. Joe Corcoran said of the new-terrain plan. "It defies rational explanation."
The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) had been planning significant improvements to the U.S. 50 route, INDOT spokesman Ed Cox said in January 1992. But they were put on hold in 1987 after the state commissioned the Donohue Study.
CARR's Tokarski responded that even with its dormant improvement plans, U.S. 50 was still a preferable option to new-terrain. "They're a whole lot farther along on that project to helping the people of Southwestern Indiana," he said, adding that CARR supported upgrading the U.S. 50 route, not turning it into an Interstate.
INDOT Deputy Commissioner Kathy Lyon dismissed U.S. 50 improvements as irrelevant, not only to I-69 but to the department's priorities list, as well. "There are some real questions about what the future of U.S. 50 will be," she told me. "Currently, we do not have a plan for that road."
Lyon cited the Donohue Study as a justification for INDOT identifying the new-terrain route "3C" as its preferred alternative. That route would have connected Ind. 37 south of Bloomington near Harrodsburg with Newberry in Southwest Greene County.
"At this point, we are confirming that Bloomington to Newberry will work," Lyon said. "If it doesn't, we will look at other alternatives. ... Right now, we don't see any showstoppers."
Lyon and Bayh-O'Bannon Democrats may not have seen any showstoppers, but Republican State Rep. Jerry Bales from Bloomington did. "I've never been told where they are going to get the money to build this thing," he said.
Lyon said it would be funded out of the state's allotment of federal and state gasoline taxes and would have to be built in "small pieces at a time."
Bales said no way: "They're going to have to raise sate gas taxes to do it. And do you think legislators in Northern Indiana are going to raise taxes for a road in Southwestern Indiana?"
In their zeal to serve the highway lobby and the Evansville Chamber of Commerce, Bayh-O'Bannon Democrats in 1992 heeded neither responsible economic stewardship nor common sense in their march toward a new-terrain I-69. As they would time and again between 1990 and today, they ignored the public and the facts and persevered with their increasingly controversial I-69 plan.
Initially, they were going to build the Southwest Indiana highway in three segments: new-terrain from Bloomington to Newberry; south along Ind. 57 from Newberry to Petersburg; and then on to Evansville via 57. Separate Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) would have been developed for each of the three sections.
New-terrain opponents, including CARR and the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC), challenged that plan, arguing that a highway proposed to connect Evansville with Indianapolis required an EIS for the entire route. In February 1992, INDOT Commissioner John Dillon announced on a WTIU television public affairs program that the agency was changing its strategy. A single EIS for the entire route would be completed, he said.
Dillon added that INDOT was considering another change in its plans - starting construction in Evansville rather than in Bloomington - which Tokarski explained as follows: "It's gotten to be more of a political issue than they had anticipated."
The political and economic pressure increased substantially in mid-year 1992 with the release of information that INDOT's new consultant had gathered on the Bloomington-Newberry stretch of I-69. The Evansville-based Bernardin-Lochmueller & Associates said in July that the 32-mile segment would cost $402 million - $12 million a mile - and would require the state to acquire 1,575 acres of private land.
Additionally, the 3C route would have destroyed 826 acres of forest, 682 acres of farmland, and six acres of wetlands, as well as 54 homes, two businesses and two abandoned homes.
As 1992 drew to a close, a coalition of environmental groups formed to rally opposition to the Bayh-O'Bannon boondoggle. In late October, HEC, CARR, the Hoosier Audubon Council, Sierra Club Uplands Group, and Protect Our Woods held a news conference in Evansville at which they lambasted the new-terrain plan and its supporters.
Their news conference followed by a week one held in Evansville by Gov. Bayh and U.S. Rep. Frank McCloskey, who formally announced that construction would begin in Evansville, not Bloomington. Most saw this as a transparent scheme to neutralize opposition in Bloomington.
The new environmental coalition called on the state to investigate the energy, environmental, health, and social costs of the new-terrain route before making a final decision. "If all such costs were considered, alternatives such as high-speed rail or improvements to highways would prove to be less costly to both the environment and the taxpayer," the coalition said in a news release.
At the news conference, Protect Our Woods' Bob Klawitter pointed to a new trucking industry magazine survey that rated Indiana's highways the ninth worst in the nation. The Sierra Club's Bill Hayden argued that the new-terrain route would not be needed if the state proceeded with its plans to upgrade U.S. 50.
And they accused Bayh and McCloskey of misleading the public about the amount of support the new-terrain route had in the Evansville area. An Evansville television station poll had showed only 38 percent of Evansville residents said the highway was "very important," 28 percent said it was "somewhat important," and 23 percent said it wasn't important at all.
"What that poll showed is that the public does not think that highway is very important," Klawitter said.
He also commented on the estimated $800 million to $1 billion it would cost to shave 15 minutes driving time from Evansville to Indianapolis. "The way we calculate it, that's about $67 million a minute," Klawitter said.
The new anti-highway coalition also suggested an alternative: upgrading U.S. 41 from Evansville to Terre Haute, where a new bypass would be built to connect with I-70.
Steven Higgs is editor of The Bloomington Alternative.