This week, a proposed new highway was presented to residents across multiple southern Indiana counties. The consulting firm Lochmueller Group is now analyzing and assembling information gleaned from meetings this week in Washington, French Lick and Jasper on the potential Mid-States Corridor.
The work is part of the Tier One Environmental Impact Statement that is expected to take about two years.
The Mid-States project is one that Dubois County leaders had sought for a long time, but seemed to be going nowhere fast. The rules at the time required the Indiana Department of Transportation to initiate any major road project with the Federal Highway Administration. That led folks in Dubois County to change the rules.
Then State Representative Mike Braun and State Senator Mark Messmer, both of Jasper, put together a change in state law that could give local communities a way to move their projects up the state's list, if they were willing to "put some skin in the game."
"It was pretty certain the project was not high on the priority list for INDOT," said Messmer. "That led Mike (Braun) and I to put together the Regional Development Authority bill. With that legislation, we were able to incentivize local communities to raise funds that can be used to pay for studies like the one we have going on now."
The Mid-States Corridor project would start at the Natcher Bridge between Rockport and Owensboro, Kentucky. It would basically run north along U.S. 231 to Dale and then continue north near Huntingburg and Jasper. After that, the road will tie into I-69 and head to Indianapolis.
Officials say they have a pretty good approximation of where the road will go up to Jasper. After that it could veer off to I-69 at Petersburg, or maybe along one of two potential routes toward Washington, or continue up along U.S. 231 to Loogootee and Crane. Other proposals include routing traffic from Jasper to French Lick or Loogootee and onto Bedford.
Getting the Regional Development Authority bill through the general assembly was a bit of a battle.
"We met with INDOT, local government and business leaders and the Indiana Finance Authority to put the structure together," said Messmer. "Then months before the session began we started discussing it with key committee heads in both the House and Senate. We got key questions answered and they got behind it. If anywhere in the process any of these committee chairman wanted to, they could have killed this bill but they all went with it."
That meant the major piece of legislation that opened the way toward getting the process started for the road passed in the first session it was ever considered.
"I've been around the legislature for awhile," said Messmer. "Getting something like this passed the first time through is very unusual. Our time meeting with lawmakers and key committee members outside of the session really helped get it done."
Once the bill allowing a Regional Development Authority to be used to try and put together plans and starting funding for road was turned into law, local officials still had to put together the agency and the money.
"Hank Menke at OFS really stepped up on that part of it," said Messmer. "The RDA was formed, and he drew in people from Dubois and Spencer counties. He got the private sector involved and raised $3.5 million from the private sector to help fund the tier one study."
The rest of the money came from Jasper, Huntingburg and Dubois County. That was about $3 million that they had acquired under a special Local Option Income Tax distribution for infrastructure improvements from the state.
"It has been a big push from both the public and private sector," added State Representative Shane Lindauer, who took over Braun's seat when he resigned to run for the U.S. Senate. "It's really been a grassroots effort to make it happen."
The project now is looking at areas outside of Dubois County, but the Jasper-Huntingburg business community has been the big driver in getting the project moving.
"It's important for Dubois County," said Lindauer. "There is a lot of industry in Dubois County. I hear regularly from people who come down from Indianapolis that there is just no good way to get to Dubois County."
An interstate highway that just runs from the Ohio River to the Dubois County line wouldn't be practical, so now the project is being considered to move northward to link into I-69. Some Daviess County officials have been involved in the preliminary work.
"Three-to-four years ago, I was invited to Dubois County when they formed their campaign," said President of the Daviess County Commissioners Nathan Gabhart. "There is a lot of passion in Dubois County for this road. The business leaders in Dubois County have put their money, time and energy where their mouth is when it comes to this."
About 85 people attended the session earlier this week in Washington. Many of those are community leaders and elected officials. While the Daviess County Economic Development Corporation is welcoming the possible addition of another interstate to the county, others are not expressing quite as much enthusiasm.
"This is in the process of investigation," said Gabhart. "They are assessing the project. We are observing what it going on, and if it turns out that the road will route through Daviess County, then I would be glad to partner with them."
The change in the rules has put the Mid-States Corridor into the big hopper and probably toward the front of the line to be built.
"There are still a lot of tough questions out there as far as routes," said Lindauer. "Something has to happen to keep Dubois County growing. There's always growing pains. There will be people impacted in negative ways. That will be the tough discussion."
For Messmer, getting a project that was once considered dead upon mention getting moving has provided a level of satisfaction.
"It is rewarding to see it get going and the Tier 1 study underway," he said. "Hopefully, in a couple of years, we can see construction begin and connect more communities to the rest of the world and help with the continued growth of our area."
The plan is to upgrade the Natcher Parkway so that the interstate can connect from Indianapolis to Bowling Green, Kentucky, and then hook into I-65. Officials project the road could then become an alternate route for motorists looking to take I-65 south from Indianapolis and bypass the heavy traffic that has built up around Louisville.