October 28, 2013

KITCHELL: Hoosier Heartland: The last of bipartisan projects?


---- — Many people have come up to me or phone me over the years to express one opinion about the four-lane highway that just opened last week south of Logansport.

The opinion was this: It will never happen.

I haven’t heard from any of those people for a few years now. The Hoosier Heartland Corridor, once a pipe dream of industrialists, local public officials and Chamber of Commerce executives in a band of cities across northern Indiana, is a reality.

While the next Rand-McNally maps of Indiana will show a wider band of highway from Logansport to Lafayette, what won’t show up is the years of frustration, meetings, funding, letter writing and stories about the concept of linking two of Indiana’s largest cities. It made sense because so many county seats where supplier industries were located in the 1980s had no four-lane link to the rest of the country’s transportation network. Forget the fact that our state motto was “The Crossroads of America.” Our reality then was that Logansport, Delphi, Wabash and Huntington were tucked away along the backroad of Indiana.

This was an unlikely project from the start. While the federal highway system had connected Fort Wayne with Logansport, the heavily traveled road from Logansport to Lafayette was merely a state highway that developed a clogged artery every time Purdue students left en massed for Christmas or summer vacation or football fans from Fort Wayne to Lafayette made their way to Ross-Ade Stadium at Purdue. When Ohio State or Michigan fans made their way to West Lafayette, it only added to the congestion. A half-mile stretch with a passing lane in northern Tippecanoe County was the only relief to some motorists who familiarized themselves with bumper stickers and license plates they saw a few feet in front of them for the better part of 40 miles.

The interstate highway system overlooked this highway nightmare, in the same way that it overlooked Evansville’s connection to the rest of Indiana.

Enter two Wabash businessmen named Glenn Tanner and Jack Porter. All they did was form a nonprofit group called the Hoosier Heartland Industrial Corridor Association. Their goal was to amplify what hundreds had contended for years: Northern Indiana needed a better way to connect all the communities from Fort Wayne to Lafayette.

At one point, that represented 16 percent of the state’s population.

There was even more credence to that argument when transportation planners factored in the connecting points of the Port of Toledo on the Great Lakes just over the Ohio state line and the possible link from Lafayette to I-74 in Illinois.

Looking back, I’m not sure this highway could be built again in the 21st century because there simply is too much partisan bickering about this kind of thing. The Hoosier Heartland came along at a time when it was at first smaller than Indianapolis and Washington, but it eventually became larger than politicians from both cities. Former Lt. Gov. John Mutz once told a corrdor meeting crowd in Wabash that a toll road was the best hope for the highway. That may explain why Mutz lost his bid for governor in 1988. He could have scored enormous points with people in seven counties that day, but he lost votes aplenty by refusing to commit more than a concept to its construction.

The late Rep. Jim Jontz was able to secure funds for the project, but the three things he did that helped the most were to land a seat on a key transportation committee, secure the designation of “priority project” as one of the 21 in the nation identified as most important, and anchor funding in the Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act know by the acronym ISTEA (pronounced ice tea).

Jontz lost to Rep. Steve Buyer in 1992, but Buyer was able to bring Rep. Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania to Indiana, and changes were made to the federal gas tax formula that ended Indiana’s status as a donor state to the federal transportation kitty.

By 1996, the $2 million Jontz secured for bridges over the Wabash that are today named for Porter and Tanner were the only portions of the highway built from Peru to Lafayette. That led local residents to join forces with Peru and other communities to sponsor “The Bridge Party.” More than 20 state legislators, a congressmen, then Lt. Gov. Frank O’Bannon and Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith, the GOP nominee for governor, all visited the bridges on Flag Day, which coincided with the 40th anniversary of the National Highway System. Both O’Bannon and Goldsmith committed to moving Logansport-to-Lafayette forward if they were elected. When O’Bannon won, his Crossroads 2000 Program provided pivotal funding to begin the work. After O’Bannon’s death and the election of Mitch Daniels as governor, his Major Moves Program generated enough capital through the leasing of the Indiana Toll Road to build the highway. In fact, after a call to move up the deadline to build the highway, Daniels and his Indiana Department of Transportation team responded to make it happen. Former Rep. Chris Chocola also secured funding for the Burlington interchange in Logansport.

It has taken officials from both parties — working together — most of 30 years to build this highway. It’s a testament to what can happen when communities and counties work together, when state and local government work together, when state government and the federal government work together, and when we all hold everyone accountable for their actions.

State Sen. Tom Weatherwax, along with Porter and Tanner, have something on the corridor named for them. But there are plenty of others to thank, from the late Jim Weaver who served as president of the corridor assoociation to Larry Muffett, who was instrumental in pulling off the Bridge Party along with Tom Slusser, Dick Dilling and the late Al Van Wormer who fed everyone who attended, and left the party in an ambulance. It was Jontz who turned heads when he secured funding for bridges built in the wilderness with no roads attached, and there were mayors from Lafayette’s Jim Riehle and Dave Heath to Logansport’s John Davis, Dick Hettinger, Bill Vernon and Mike Fincher, who crossed party lines to endorse Daniels’ approach to funding highways. Davis also worked on the project along with State Reps. Bob Sabatini, Rich McClain, Bill Friend, Claire Leuck and Sheila Klinker, as well as the late State Sen. Harold “Potch” Wheeler of Wabash. Not the least of the supporters was former Indiana University economist Morton Marcus who spoke at the initial Heartland meeting in Peru on a cold Saturday morning more than 25 years ago. He was a pit bull on this issue, and he never let go of this bone.

Was their political capital to be gained from all this? Maybe there should have been more, but many public officials lost, even though they supported the Heartland. O’Bannon even lost Wabash County after cutting the ribbon that finally brought the highway to it that Tanner and Porter had so desperately sought.

In the end, the road to progress, as a saying goes, is always under construction. So it is with any major project that benefits so many people in so many ways from college students driving late at night to get home or back to college to a small manufacturer whose livelihood depends on on-time delivery.

Could we do this all over again if we had to do it? I don’t know. I hope we can forge alliances in many ways and accomplish many things for the greater good in this community, this area and this state. But if there are those out there who say we can’t, remember the folks who said we’d never build the highway we now have. Remember them — prove them wrong.

Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at