By TIM EVANS -- The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS -- Just in time for holiday travel, a new section of interstate is opening in southwestern Indiana.
Gov. Mitch Daniels will climb on his motorcycle later today to lead a ceremonial parade along a 67-mile stretch of four-lane highway cutting through farm fields and forests from Evansville, Ind., to Crane, Ind., and will preside at three ribbon-cutting ceremonies. The road opens to the public at 6 p.m. EST.
"If you live anywhere in the, probably the poorest, most struggling quadrant of our state, this is the moment ... you have waited for a long time," Daniels said Friday. "I think often people who live in other parts of the state ... cannot fully appreciate what a big thing this is to link them and their struggling economies to not just the rest of the state, but to the rest of the nation."
Yet this portion of I-69 -- part of a limited-access highway envisioned to go from the Mexican border in Texas to the Canadian border at Port Huron, Mich. -- is not quite connected to a piece across the Ohio River in Henderson, Ky., and also does not yet connect with the section of I-69 that originates in Indianapolis.
The section of I-69 opening today represents about half of the planned route of a more than $1.5 billion project, which state officials tout as "the longest contiguous new interstate" under construction in the United States. In a statement issued by the Indiana Department of Transportation, Daniels said the Evansville-to-Crane section was completed "years ahead of schedule and nearly $80 million under budget."
The next section -- between Crane and Bloomington, Ind. -- is projected to open by late 2014.
"There are only three reasons for building the road," said former Daviess County resident David Graham, 85, a retired farmer now living in Florida. "Jobs. Jobs. And jobs."
He pushed for construction of I-69 for more than three decades.
The genesis for the I-69 project is often traced to the dinner table of Graham's home. He was intrigued by the prospects of a Pan-American highway, said he and several local leaders were meeting with David Reed from the Hudson Institute to discuss opportunities for economic development in rural Indiana when the possibility of a new highway came up in the conversation.
"The highway got started with a comment from David Reed during breakfast at my house," recalled Graham, who plans to attend today's opening ceremonies. "During the course of the conversation, he said it no doubt would be a good thing for this part of the state and all of Indiana."
But it would take years -- and untold hours of lobbying by Graham and scores of business and political leaders -- before the project came to fruition.
"There were many times when we didn't think we would ever see this day," Washington, Ind., Mayor Joe Wellman said.
"Our ultimate goal is that some new employers -- light manufacturing, logistics and service companies -- will now see this as a good place to locate," he said.
But opponents have questioned land acquisition practices, and the very need for the interstate.
A Star investigation recently raised questions about how much the state paid for land for the highway in its rush to complete construction.
Confidential settlement documents obtained by The Star reveal that state transportation department offered $7 million for 32 parcels of real estate in Greene, Pike, Monroe and Daviess counties that state appraisers had valued at $3.34 million -- more than double the fair market value of those parcels.
The records reviewed by The Star cover only a small fraction of the land the state obtained through purchases and easements along the 94-mile highway corridor between Evansville and Bloomington. According to I-69 cost estimates the department provided this summer, $162.6 million in state and federal money were spent on right-of-way purchases along the new stretch of freeway.
Because of the secret nature of the state appraisal records, it may never be known whether the state routinely overpaid for that land and, if so, by how much.
Tom Tokarski, president of the anti-I-69 group Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, questions why the state spent any money on the highway, particularly with the fate of the section from Bloomington to Indianapolis in limbo because of a lack of money.
"My feeling is that this road will stand as a monument to backward thinking, misplaced priorities and wasted tax dollars," Tokarski said.
To complicate matters, no money has been allocated to complete the most expensive, most politically sensitive and busiest stretch: Bloomington to Indianapolis.
Existing revenue sources are tapped out. The $3.8 billion in Major Moves money from the Indiana Toll Road lease is all spent or allocated. Gas tax collections are falling. A tax hike is politically difficult. Federal earmarks have dried up. And there's little money to shift from other projects.
Daniels acknowledged Friday that some of the value of the new project would be lost if the highway is not completed from Bloomington to Indianapolis.
"When our highway funding, our gas tax funding, goes back to normal in a few years, it will present some challenges. But the answer is to prioritize the completion with all of the needs of the state, and if it means it takes more years to do it, that might be the prudent answer," Daniels said. "But I think the goal should still be to finish it at some stage."
Contributing: Chris Sikich and Ryan Sabalow, The Indianapolis Star