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.

It was successor Gov. Mike Pence presiding over the U.S. 31 bypass opening. “This road is not a bypass,” Pence said. “This road is a freeway of opportunity for Kokomo and all of north central Indiana.”

Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who will now see tens of thousands of motorists slip by his city to the east, finds a new transportation canvas to continue his adroit innovation. “We need to make sure we develop it properly … to make it an asset not just for Howard County, but for the entire state,” Goodnight told the Kokomo Tribune, adding that the new Ind. 931 corridor running through Kokomo needs to be protected. “We need to make sure anything we do to develop this road doesn’t detract from the investments made by our businesses there.”

When I look at the potential for my hometown of Peru - where per capita income has stagnated at levels of my high school graduation in the Class of ‘74 - I see the state’s longest runway at the Grissom Aeroplex nestled along the emerging U.S. 31 freeway, just an hour’s drive from the toll road and I-465, with access to the Port of Toledo. It all screams “Economic development!”

While it is pleasing that Indiana’s famed “Crossroads of America” are evolving, we have many challenges, far beyond those who will hog the new U.S. 31 left lane (can some of you troopers write a ticket or two?).

Anyone who drives I-65 from Gary to 465, or from Southport to Columbus, knows that we are at or near capacity, with gridlock just a few years away.

Gov. Pence has to figure out how to build and pay for that I-69 gap between Crane and Bloomington, and its terminus at 465 (as well as some rest stops for the meekly bladdered at a proper pee break interval, say, 90 minutes north of Evansville).

It appears to be a priority. He noted the 2020 Fund was included in the current biennial budget. “It was $400 million in highway funding,” Pence said. “That will take legislation for us to deploy those resources. We’ll be going to the General Assembly with a plan to put those resources to work. Roads mean jobs, and I don’t just mean road jobs.“

Pence continued, “I’m committed to finishing I-69 all the way to Indianapolis. My inclination is to look at other infrastructure needs around the state and see where we can enhance infrastructure in the short term as we finish the longer term projects.”

So there you have it. Tens of thousands of Hoosiers will glide across the northern Indiana prairies on the 31 freeway this Thanksgiving. Pence can dream that some day before he leaves office in three to seven years, he can make a two-hour drive to Evansville, following all applicable speed laws.

And you’ve got to think that when the temperature rises, Our Man Mitch might retrieve the Harley from Ross-Ade Stadium, and do a quick spin around Kokomo.

Brian Howey, a Peru native, is the publisher of The Howey Political Report. He can be reached at Find him on Twitter @hwypol.