Dave Kitchell

On the coldest Saturday morning in Peru, Ind., I’ll ever remember, a group of community leaders from Fort Wayne to Lafayette met at the Moose Lodge downtown to hear a speaker.

It was Morton Marcus. He was an Indiana University research economist whose job was to annually make treks across the state to discuss the economy and how it affects Indiana.

That day 25 years ago this week, he was in Peru to talk about how the economy had not affected the region from Fort Wayne to Logansport and on to Lafayette.

After digging into census figures and library data on transportation, Marcus found that belt of northern Indiana had grown the fastest of any in the state after the Depression, but had fallen on hard times in recent years. It was lagging behind.

What he delivered that day was a call to arms for those looking for something that would boost local economies and reverse the decline from milk and honey to bread and water for the communities along U.S. 24 from Fort Wayne to Logansport and Ind. 25 from Logansport to Lafayette.

The problem was multi-pronged. A section of four-lane highway from Peru to Wabash had already been completed, but there was an undulating gap from Wabash to Huntington. At the east edge of Wabash, a railroad viaduct narrowed traffic to a bottleneck and served as the symbol for what had to happen on that segment. Meanwhile, the U.S. 24 segment from Logansport to Peru was home to what was known as “The Killer Bridge.” It wound through the hills of eastern Cass County as much as a drunken donkey on Pike’s Peak. White crosses memorializing victims of fatal accidents on what is now Logansport Road in Miami County had faded with time.

In the months after that meeting, then Lt. Gov. John Mutz told a gathering of the Hoosier Heartland Industrial Corridor Association in Wabash that a four-lane road between Fort Wayne and Lafayette could be built only as a toll road, and that the state didn’t have the money for the project.

Fortunately, there were people like Glenn Tanner and Jack Porter who didn’t accept that answer. They were two Wabash businessmen who passed the gavel to each other as heads of the association. They held annual meetings. They courted public officials. They had a legislative dinner in Indianapolis. But most of all, they never gave up hope that a highway would be built because it made sense not just for economic reasons but public safety.

A quarter century later, driving the 70 miles from Logansport to Fort Wayne is easier than driving the 40 miles from Logansport west to Lafayette. Four-lane segments from Logansport to Peru and Wabash to Huntington have long been a reality. Between Delphi and Lafayette, sections of a new four-lane highway are being built, and this time of year when trees appear naked without leaves, the details of new overpasses are coming sharply into focus at the Carroll-Tippecanoe county line.

In another five years, that segment should be finished. The link Marcus touted 25 years ago will finally be done, but no one will be able to calculate the jobs and opportunities lost to communities along the Hoosier Heartland in the years since the nation’s interstate system reshaped and redirected our transportation patterns.

Americans heard plenty about leaving no child behind in their schools in the past eight years, but not much thought has been given to the communities left behind when highways found other corridors to exploit with faster travel and economic development. Some restaurant chains and stores will only locate on four-lane highways, and logistics experts make a case for locating most everything in places where transportation is talked of in present tense and not past participles.

The Heartland needed a heart bypass of a different kind than surgeons use. It needed an infusion of concrete, commitment and determination to build something no matter how many times politicians passed a buck or failed to take a stand.

Many of the people who have pushed the Heartland this far are no longer with us, and many of us will not live to see the day a four-lane trip from Lafayette to Fort Wayne is possible. But that day is coming, and on cold January days like the ones we’ve experienced in the past week, it’s important to remember not how far we have to go to finish the project, but how far we’ve come.

• Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached through the newspaper at ptnews@pharostribune.com.

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