Organizations speak out against corridor

By ALLEN LAMAN
alaman@dcherald.com

The Mid-States Corridor could one day bring a new, four-lane, limited-access highway through parts of Southern Indiana.

But not everyone wants it.

Earlier this month, a group of concerned organizations throughout the state submitted a sprawling letter to the Indiana Department of Transportation regarding the ongoing project. The document’s contents urged INDOT to suspend the planning process while the coronavirus pandemic disrupts lives, while also reevaluating the “merits of this project” altogether.

“The continuing COVID-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty for many, and the Mid-States Corridor Project Team wants to be sensitive to this changing environment,” Mindy Peterson, Mid-States Corridor spokesperson, wrote in an email. “While the Project Team is continuing to evaluate input we have received and the analyses process, we’re postponing in-person stakeholder engagement and some public outreach efforts until a more appropriate time. We continue to welcome public feedback through the project website (MidStatesCorridor.com), by phone and by mail.”

According to the corridor’s website, the project is anticipated to begin on State Road 66, near the William H. Natcher Bridge over the Ohio River at Rockport, before continuing generally through the Huntingburg and Jasper area and extending north to connect to Interstate 69.

Officials have narrowed the plan down to five route options: two running west of U.S. 231, one running somewhat parallel to the state road in Dubois County, and two running east of the road. Those options were shown at a series of community meetings in February. The options will be narrowed down to one proposed option this fall, which will be studied to determine a single route by possibly summer 2021.

An ongoing environmental impact study is evaluating improvements to and use of existing facilities, as well as the construction of new roadway facilities. A no-build alternative will also be evaluated to serve as a baseline for comparison.

Jeff Stant, executive director of the Indiana Forest Alliance, provided one of the nearly 90 signatures attached to the letter. Though decisions regarding how the corridor could shape up won’t be made any time soon, he explained that his arguments against a brand new road can be summarized in three main points.

The first is that he believes the corridor is the vision of business and government leaders who ‘“have been talking to each other in echo chambers.” Through what he described as an “un-democratic, special-interest-oriented process,” those leaders have “developed a need for this project that’s based on the vision of a very few number of influential people in the region,” he said.

“And what about the rest of us?” Stant asked in a phone interview. “Why didn’t they ask anyone else what their vision for the future of the area is? And what they think is really needed?”

The Mid-States Regional Development Authority initiated and funded a study of the corridor under the National Environmental Policy Act. The RDA is partnering with INDOT to oversee the study. This study is required for all federally-funded projects to assess environmental effects before making decisions concerning the construction of highways and other publicly-owned facilities.

According to Peterson, the remaining routes have the greatest potential to meet the project’s purpose and need.

“Its main goals are to improve accessibility for regional residents and businesses, support economic development in southern Indiana and improve access to major rail and air intermodal centers,” Peterson wrote of the corridor.

In his second point, Stant questioned the necessity of a four-lane, new-terrain interstate.

“The basic question is, ‘Is a new-terrain road needed or justified?’” he asked. “To us, it seems like a radical, destructive idea. It’s not a good old, conservative, well-thought out idea. It’s a radical idea that will cause a lot of destruction. So, does the need for this justify the destruction?”

In his final point, Stant described the potential routes that trail northeast from Dubois County as going through “some of the most stunning, natural beauty in the state.” and “some of the most unique, geologic area in the lower Midwest.” The impact a new road could have to the land and wildlife in those stretches would be detrimental, he argued.

The exact route the corridor would follow is expected to be chosen in summer 2021, after which the Federal Highway Administration would need to grant final approval of the preferred corridor. Following that, the required Tier 2 environmental studies can begin and will include more detailed analyses and selection of specific alignments.

Peterson wrote that environmental impacts “must be carefully considered in this study,” as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. All alternatives are evaluated based on benefits, impacts and costs, she wrote. Those impacts cover impacts to the natural environment — including forests, streams and threatened and endangered species, managed lands and cultural resources, among others.

“The environmental process focuses on identifying these impacts and looking for ways to avoid, minimize or mitigate potential impacts,” she wrote.

Stant believes that U.S. 231 is in need of safety improvements. But instead of building a highway that slices through new terrain, he believes fixing the existing road and promoting alternative means of movement like public transportation and moving freight on rails are better options.

“We feel like the part of Indiana that doesn’t matter to the political officials,” Stant said. “Which is the vast majority of Indiana. We think that if you actually sat down with all the people in Southwest Indiana, you would find that very few of them support this project.”




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