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Highway Boondoggles

Highway Boondoggles 2023: Habitat Devastation in the Hoosier State

Plans for a new 54-mile highway in southern Indiana threaten thousands of acres of forests, farmland and wildlife habitat. So why is Indiana forging ahead anyway?

Photo: ITB495|

The proposed Mid-States corridor would run parallel to I-69, pictured here.

This article is a part of our annual Highway Boondoggles series in partnership with U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Click here to read the other articles in the series as they are published.

Mid-States Corridor, Indiana
$735 million to $1 billion

The controversial Mid-States Corridor is a proposed 54-mile new-build highway connecting I-69 near Crane Naval Depot in Martin County, Ind., to I-64 near Dale, Ind. Slicing through a largely rural part of the state, the highway would devastate thousands of acres of farmland, wetlands and forests and destroy or degrade critical wildlife habitats, open spaces and other natural resources. While backed by local business leaders, the highway is fiercely opposed by residents, who say it “will offer little to no benefit, and only destroy our beautiful farms, homes and environment.”

Proposals for a new highway along this route have been around since the early 1990s. Despite impact studies for various plans being shelved by the federal government in 2014 on the basis that such a road was “no longer warranted,” a group of business leaders and elected officials known as the I-67 Development Corporation have continued to push for a new highway. Their efforts culminated in the current proposals for the Mid-States Corridor, a billion-dollar road running parallel to the nearby I-69, which had opened in 2012.

Having proposed several potential route options, in April 2022 the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) announced that it had selected “Alternative P” as its preferred alternative. Regarding the exact road layout, the agency announced that a “freeway” or interstate model has been ruled out, leaving an “expressway,” with at least two lanes in each direction, and a “super two,” with one lane in each direction plus passing lanes or wide shoulders, as the remaining options.

An analysis published by INDOT in 2020 estimated that construction costs for these two alternatives could run to $470.7 million and $400.5 million, respectively, not including land acquisition, right-of-way and utility relocations, design/engineering, construction management and other costs. As of April 2022, the cost of INDOT’s preferred option was estimated at between $735 million and $1 billion.

A 2020 analysis by Hoosier Environmental Council, Sierra Club, Indiana Forest Alliance and other local environmental groups notes that the proposed highway will have grave implications for forests, floodplains, wetlands, farmland and waterways, and threatens to destroy or degrade important wildlife habitats, including for birds (the Loggerhead shrike, the Barn owl, the Cerulean warbler and others), endangered bats (the Indiana bat, Northern long-eared bat, gray bat and four other species) and endangered river species including the Lake sturgeon and others. The analysis notes that secondary impacts from related development along the route could potentially increase the loss of natural lands by 22 percent to 44 percent.

During the public comment period following the release of the Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement in April 2022, INDOT received hundreds of comments from local residents and businesses opposed to the project – most of them in Dubois County, including Jasper and Huntingburg.

The specific way this proposed destruction is being driven and funded has sparked further anger among local residents – not least because the five members of the Mid-states Corridor Regional Development Authority (RDA) board charged with raising the funds needed to initiate the study are appointed by local governments in Spencer and Dubois counties, and the proposed route would cut through communities in Daviess and Martin counties, whose residents have no representation on the RDA.

As the Indiana Forest Alliance puts it, in a scathing article about the proposed highway in its Winter 2022-23 newsletter, “The bottom line is that the RDA is being driven by businessmen in the Jasper/Huntingburg area […] who each stand to benefit greatly from a new highway to the front doors of their businesses and the real estate boom that such a highway will bring.” This additional development will come at the cost of yet more natural land beyond that already eaten up by the highway itself, putting additional forestland, farms and wetlands at risk.

Meanwhile, critics claim, INDOT has neither demonstrated any actual need for the new highway, nor made any attempt to show that the problems they claim it will solve even exist, or, to the extent that they do, why they could not be solved by improving existing infrastructure or promoting non-highway alternatives, such as passenger and/or freight rail.

Moreover, as noted in a 2020 letter submitted to INDOT by a coalition of local civic groups, businesses, churches and other organizations in response to the project’s Tier 1 Environmental Impact Study Draft Purpose and Need Statement, “In justifying other highway projects, INDOT has argued that significant population growth is what justifies highway construction in undeveloped areas—on the basis that more people means greater demand for highway infrastructure. Here, INDOT tries to claim the opposite—that low population growth should be addressed by building a new highway. INDOT cannot have it both ways. It is nonsensical to claim that when an area is growing, the state should build a highway to accommodate this growth, and also that when an area is declining, the state should build a highway to create growth. By this logic, Indiana should be building highways literally everywhere.”

The damage that the Mid-States Corridor in its current form would inflict on the local area far outweighs any potential benefit the road might bring. Moreover, local advocates argue that even if a genuine need to add more capacity could be demonstrated, there are plenty of other potential routes that would avoid the destruction engendered by the one currently being proposed. In its Winter 2022-23 newsletter, the Indiana Forest Alliance presents maps of such alternatives using existing roads that they say promoters of the proposed highway have refused to consider. “Before one square inch of ground for another high speed, new terrain boondoggle is committed,” they write, the elected representatives involved “should explain why any route that does not use new terrain, i.e., does not eat up and open up thousands of acres of forests and farms to development, is not being considered for this highway.”

Even one of the Environmental Impact Statement’s own contributors has questioned the need for the project, saying: “Every step of the way we looked at this, no one had confidence in the project. … We’re going to displace people. We’re going to move farms. We’re going to impact wetlands and wildlife and agricultural fields. And for what? Why are we doing it?”

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