Pharos-Tribune

Columns

December 1, 2013

HOWEY: Highways the route for Hoosier innovation

Drifting back in time, I can see my family loading up the Rambler for that Thanksgiving trip up to Grandma’s house in Mishawaka.

We became “motorists,” leaving Peru in the Wabash Valley behind, climbing up the ridge to Mexico on old U.S. 31. Another 20 miles later, we would come to a stoplight. There was a one-lane bridge spanning the Tippecanoe River north of Rochester, and in this place, the main north/south U.S. highway in Indiana became a travesty.

My father, a mild-mannered newspaper editor, would whip off his eyeglasses and quietly seethe about the U.S. 31 of the late 1960s. Twenty miles to the north it was a one-lane bridge. Twenty miles to the south it was Stoplight City.

“A complete embarrassment for the state,” he would grumble.

As of this past Tuesday, U.S. 31 took a further step of evolution as the new Major Moves era Kokomo bypass opened, and for one bright shining moment, as the Elkhart Chamber’s Kyle Hannon observed, turned into a brief traffic jam.

Within the next two or three years — once freeway exchanges are finished between Lakeville and South Bend, and through Westfield and Carmel — the chief grumble prompter will be the left lane Larrys that never learned that “passing lane” concept in driver’s ed.

You can thank Purdue President Mitch Daniels and his current station high above his university’s famed Road School, for accelerating the U.S. 31 evolution. As governor, he was all about “asset management” and he parlayed a $3.8 billion lease of the Indiana East/West Tollroad into Major Moves, what he would describe as a “fully funded, 10-year road plan.”

Many folks along the Toll Road counties seethed over what they called the “selling” of that highway, even though their counties received millions of dollars the other 85 counties never had access. At one point in his first term, Daniels saw his approval rating plummet below 40 percent. But Daniels was a potential presidential candidate from the school of “good policy makes good politics.” He weathered his approval crisis, won reelection with 58 percent of the vote, and was rewarded when he revved up his Harley and took the first cruise on the new I-69 extension between Evansville and Crane Naval.

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