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Hoosier Heartland Highway pumps up hope on prairie: Expressway construction starting two years early

March 17, 2008

LAFAYETTE-For years, they've driven on little more than paved-over wagon trails pioneers carved into the hills nestling the Wabash River.

Motorists on State Road 25 between Logansport and Lafayette have grown desperate for a replacement: the final, 33-mile western leg of the "Hoosier Heartland Highway."

Today, the Hoosier Heartland expressway ends in Logansport-the western terminus of a newly improved, four-lane U.S. 24 that runs east, to Fort Wayne.

But last month Gov. Mitch Daniels surprised highway proponents with word that construction of the State Road 25 replacement between Interstate 65 and Logansport would start this fall, two years earlier than expected.

Not only that, completion would be moved up three years, to 2013. A big chunk of the $450 million project is coming out of Daniels' lease of the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign consortium for $3.9 billion.

"Next to I-69, this one is probably the largest new-terrain project" in miles, said James Earl II, the Indiana Department of Transportation project engineer for the new road.

The expressway will bring to Lafayette's doorstep more traffic from two major north-south routes that the Heartland crosses in Indiana: Interstate 69 and U.S. 31.

"We're kind of the regional shopping center and medical center" already, said Dana Smith, president of Lafayette-West Lafayette Development Corp.

"It's going to make it easier for people to get here" from the east, Smith said.

The new S.R. 25 will run on flatland above the Wabash River. It will sport four lanes accessed by a combination of inter- state-like interchanges and at-grade crossings. Initially, at least, the expressway won't be bottled up with traffic signals.

Meanwhile, INDOT is about to start work on closing the eastern gap in the Hoosier Heartland by building a four-lane version of U.S. 24 that will span 12 miles between Fort Wayne and the Ohio state line.

Ohio is making U.S. 24 a four-lane all the way to the seaport gateway of Toledo. That will complete a much bigger path through the two states identified by the federal government as the Hoosier Heartland Industrial Corridor, though it's not commonly called that in Ohio. The federal government has designated it "high priority corridor" No. 4 in the nation.

The western end of the Hoosier Heartland will open up economic development potential not only for Lafayette, but also for scores of smaller cities to the east, such as Delphi, next door in Carroll County.

"This is much more than just a highway," said Mark S. Davis, project director of the Hoosier Heartland Industrial Corridor Inc.

"It's been 30 years since a lot of these small towns were planning for anything other than when a plant was going to close. It's been a huge psychological mind shift," Davis said.

Revived

Daniels told INDOT to step on it regarding Hoosier Heartland, which cuts across rural areas where ethanol and biodiesel plants have been springing up.

"The governor made it very clear this was a high priority for him," said INDOT spokesman Andy Dietrick.

It's a dream come true for folks in these parts. Local leaders started talking in earnest about an alternative to two-lane S.R. 25 way back in the 1970s. In 1987, the Indiana General Assembly ordered INDOT to conduct a feasibility study of an expressway between Lafayette and Fort Wayne.

Construction progressed in fits and starts on the eastern leg-a four-lane version of U.S. 24. In 1996, two four-lane "bridges to nowhere" opened over the Wabash River between Peru and Logansport. Roads leading to the bridges weren't completed until three years later.

But farther west, on S.R. 25, motorists endured worsening congestion, mostly in the form of semi-truck traffic. The road's blind hills and curves, and alternating twoto three-lane configuration, became increasingly deadly.

From 2001 to 2005, 18 people died in crashes and hundreds more were injured, according to an analysis by the Lafayette Courier & Journal. In 2006 alone, there were 37 injuries and one death, according to the Area Plan Commission of Tippecanoe County.

"State 25 is a death trap of a highway. It's actually pretty staggering," Davis said. "This is essentially the only road to Fort Wayne and on to Toledo."

Good and bad

At the same time, the existing road is the lifeblood to towns it crosses, such as Americus, founded in 1832 by businessman William Digby, supposedly a colorful gambler who was banking on the Wabash and Erie canal's terminating here and making him rich. It didn't-the canal kept going west.

But these days, town fixtures such as Roberts Americus Restaurant just want to keep income flowing. Owner Richard Roberts concedes that travelers coming from areas such as Fort Wayne to attend Purdue University games will probably take the expressway, bypassing the restaurant he's operated for 32 years.

On the other hand, he's hoping tourists and those headed for nearby recreational areas will prefer the scenic beauty of old S.R. 25. Plus, some may find the old road more attractive once the expressway pulls off some traffic.

"It's a pretty drive," he said.

Highway backers have managed to avert trouble in other towns, such as in nearby Buck Creek, whose tallest building may be its grain elevator. The town stands smack-dab in the path of the expressway-as does the home of the Buck Creek Fish Fry-hallowed ground for the locals. Politically, it would have been a mess to enter Buck Creek, Davis said, showing visitors how the road now will loop just north of the town.

Other property owners are waiting to see if they'll be casualties of progress, including the owner of a dump-truck firm that operates from a neatly maintained garage.

"One of the great unanswered questions-are they going to get clobbered?" Davis said, pointing to the garage. "That's one of the reasons I want to get land acquisition done. They need answers," he said of property owners.

INDOT still has to acquire most of the land in the 200- to 250-foot-wide path of the highway. It recently mailed out letters to property owners. Negotiations should start soon.

Generally, the expressway will follow Norfolk & Southern railroad tracks, to the northeast. INDOT has already determined that Heartland will start at S.R. 25's existing I-65 interchange, then veer through a gravel pit and across part of the former Aretz Airport, now a light industrial park.

Another sure bet for the route is that it will have an exit near the Indiana Packers plant, just outside of Delphi.

The plant owned by Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi provides an estimated 11 percent of fresh pork consumed by Japan. According to a report by the Federal Highway Administration, the company undertook a major expansion because of a commitment a few years ago from INDOT to put the interchange practically in the plant's back yard.

"Does this look like an attractive place for growth or what?" said Davis, gesturing to wide-open fields just south of the Packers plant. It was Davis who some 20 years ago wrote the initial proposal to lure the Subaru of Indiana manufacturing plant to Lafayette.

Delphi Mayor Randy Strasser said city officials will begin updating planning and zoning over the next several months in advance of the highway's arrival.

Other cities, such as Lafayette, already are extending water and sewer lines to the new highway site.

Economic spin-off

Delphi's Strasser sees more than plants down the road. He sees the city as an attractive bedroom community to Lafayette. The town boasts historical assets, such as remnants of the Wabash & Erie Canal that have been turned into recreational and tourist areas. It also sports brick buildings downtown from the early 1800s canal era that look like something from the old South.

"We want to be able to attract people to Delphi who may be working in some of the executive offices in Lafayette," Strasser said. "We want to get to the point where we can attract some of the middle- and upper-class-income people in the area to come back to Delphi."

Davis, head of the highway coalition, has his eye on knowledge-intensive manufacturing, such as advanced power systems for the automotive industry. He also figures the agricultural corridor is well-positioned to benefit from advances in cellulosic ethanol research. Cellulosic ethanol is made from woody plants and grasses that grow abundantly and are typically cheaper than corn, which is more commonly used to make ethanol. Researchers at nearby Purdue University already are working on enzymes that could make cellulosic ethanol more cost-effective than corn-based ethanol.

Davis wonders whether research firms based in Purdue's research park might need more space as they grow. If so, they might find a home along the Hoosier Heartland.

Time will tell. But, "just today, for example, I was contacted by an economic development group that wanted to get some information on when the highway would be completed. They're doing a site search for a hotel."
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