I-69 dividing more than land; residents'opinions mixed
Daviess County could attract additional business, but farmers might lose their land.
By WILL HOLFORDof Southwest Texas State University
News-Sentinel photo by C. Somodevilla
His land, for now
Jim Gillooly walks across the highest point in Veale Township, a hay field on his family's property in Daviess County. A proposal by the Indiana Department of Transportation would -send- -the I-69 NAFTA highway diagonally across his property. The six-lane road - and an interchange with a county r-oad would both be less than 100 yards from his house. "You can buy the land and unload the bulldozers," Gillooly said, "but they are not getting on the land."
WASHINGTON, Ind. At first glance, Tom Boyd should be excited about the prospect of an interstate highway being built close to this southwest Indiana farm community.
Boyd owns a trucking business that employs about 35 drivers and carries products ranging from diapers to seed grain all over the country. He acknowledges that a highway close to his business would make it easier and more profitable to transport goods.
However, the proposed Interstate 69 would come too close to his trucking business.
"Supposedly, if they take the preferred route, it will go right through my business," Boyd said. "I'll lose my trucking operations."
Boyd stands to lose more than his trucking business. He is resigned to the fact that if the highway comes through Daviess County, he will be forced to relocate his family as well.
"They are willing to pay me what my house is worth minus the cost of an office building," Boyd said. "The government said the building could still be used as an office."
Boyd, who grows corn, wheat, beans and popcorn on about 4,000 acres in Daviess County, could lose more still.
"Besides being concerned with putting 35 drivers out of business, a lot of my fields will become unproductive," he said.
Slicing the land
Because the highway will cross Daviess County diagonally, Boyd and the other farmers whose land will be affected said entire fields would be taken out of production. The diagonal path of the highway will make traditional Midwest row crops impossible in some fields.
Despite the fact that Boyd stands to profit financially if I-69 were to go through Daviess County, he is one of the highway's most outspoken opponents.
"I'm not opposed to highways, but I am opposed to spending money we don't need to spend," Boyd said. "We don't have enough money to maintain the roads we have now."
Boyd isn't alone in his fight against I-69. Other farmers and members of the community have voiced opposition to the proposed highway, described by the state as an "economic development" project.
Most notably, almost 700 members of the Amish community in Daviess County sent two petitions opposing the interstate to the Indiana Department of Transportation and the governor's office. The petitions have drawn national media attention because the Amish have historically abstained from getting involved in politics.
Jim Gillooly, a farmer and cattle rancher in Daviess County who is friends with several Amish farmers, says support for the highway is eroding as a result of the petitions and other grass-roots efforts.
"I think the Amish getting involved has helped," Gillooly said. "You've got a whole new ballgame now."
Gillooly, whose land is also in danger of being taken for the right of way, said the interstate will choke off roads in the county that the Amish, many of whom only use horse and buggies, depend on for transportation.
The concerns of the Amish have not gone unnoticed. Curtis Wiley, INDOT commissioner, said the state will make every effort to mitigate the effects I-69 will have on the Amish.
"I feel worst about the disconnect with the Amish," Wiley said. "We are not going to disconnect families and we are going to maintain the Amish heritage."
Wiley said some measures, such as box culverts built under the roadway, will ensure the Amish have means to travel throughout the county safely.
The plight of the Amish and other farmers in the path of the highway has brought national media attention to the fight. Boyd and Gillooly have become the unofficial spokesmen for the opposition in Washington.
In his office, Boyd keeps a videotaped copy of an "NBC Nightly News" segment of "The Fleecing of America" to show visitors the effects the project would have. The broadcast features Gillooly showing parts of his farm that would be paved over.
Farmers and Amish have other allies in their struggle. Several conservationist groups have criticized the project, saying it will destroy too many acres of prime farmland and timber country.
The Indiana portion of the project will require the acquisition of 3,000 acres of land through what is considered some of the state's best farmland. Wiley points out that Indiana has more than 13 million acres of prime farmland. He said the loss of 3,000 acres "is not insignificant, but taken in context of the whole project, is small."
"The loss of 3,000 acres of farmland today is unacceptable," Gillooly said.
While Wiley said the loss of that much land isn't insignificant, Boyd was told by an INDOT representative that his land was exactly that.
"They told me that since my land was worth less than 10 percent of the total cost of the project, the cost of buying it is insignificant," Boyd said.
A common cause
The I-69 project has given groups that sometimes oppose each other a common bond. Joining the conservationist groups in their fight are consumer and taxpayer groups that oppose the project on the grounds that it is a waste of money.
The cost of a new highway linking Evansville to Indianapolis is estimated at $1.4 billion. Indiana would be responsible for about $200 million of the total cost, and the federal government would pay the rest.
Both consumer and conservationist groups are in favor of an alternate route that would upgrade Indiana 41 and Interstate 70 to a four-lane, limited access roadway, and re-designate it I-69.
Consumer groups favor this alternative over the construction of a new roadway because it will save about $600 million and is only 10 miles farther than the proposed direct route between Evansville and Indianapolis.
Conservationist groups and organizations favor the 41-70 route also, but for very different reasons. They are opposed to a new roadway being built through areas of sensitive karst terrain, timber country and precious farmland.
Sandy Ewing of the Environmental Law and Policy Center said conservationist groups and farm bureaus have united in their support of the alternative route because it will save hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of acres of precious land.
While the 41-70 route seems to be a logical alternative to building a new roadway, it may not be a viable alternative. Steve Cecil, chief of the Division of Preliminary Engineering and Environment for INDOT, said the 41-70 alternative might not meet the needs of the project.
"Originally, it was determined that the termini for the project would be Evansville and Bloomington," Cecil said. "We couldn't look at 70 to 41 because they didn't go to Bloomington."
Cecil also points out that the 41-70 route would not meet the project's original goals.
"The purpose and needs of the project are to provide a transportation corridor through the central quadrant of the state as an economic development tool for that part of the state," Cecil said.
However, the state is now looking at Indianapolis as one of the project's destinations.
"A month or so ago we announced that we are expanding the environmental impact study to include Indianapolis," Cecil said. "In doing so, all of a sudden that made the 70 to 41 model worth looking at."
Cecil doesn't think the 41-70 alternative is as appealing as the route through the middle of the state, but adds that he won't know until the study is complete.
Not too close
Many people in Washington favor the construction of I-69 near their town, but they do not want it too close.
"I'd like to see it pushed a little farther east than it is proposed," Mayor Tom Baumert said. "I think it will stymie economic growth if we don't get it pushed farther east. As you know, cities usually grow up to interstates and rarely go beyond."
Baumert said many of the farmers in the area are against the highway, while other people favor it.
"By far there are much more for it than against it," Baumert said. "I've always been in favor of it. I just think we need an interstate badly."
Baumert said many businesses have shown an interest in Washington but have moved elsewhere because of a lack of infrastructure.
"Prospects shy away from Washington due to the lack of four-lane transportation nearby," Baumert said. "We have a lot of potential here."
Although Baumert is concerned with his constituents' concerns and objections to the highway, he thinks a compromise can be found.
"My primary concern is that they address these issues," Baumert said. "I don't think it is necessary to split anybody's farm when there is plenty of unproductive land that can be used. But I do want that highway."
Few doubt that I-69 would stimulate economic growth in Daviess County, but Boyd, Gillooly and many others wonder if it will be worth the cost.
Summing up that sentiment, Boyd said, "We are putting a pretty heavy burden on our grandchildren. I hope we don't go hungry using up good farmland for roads."