New section of Interstate 69 getting positive reviews

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With the opening of  Interstate 69 in Greene County comes a new daily stop for truck driver Ed Miller.

Five days a week, he pulls his 2011 Volvo semi into the parking lot at the CountryMark service station on Ind. 231, near the northernmost interstate exchange, to rest up.

Monday morning, he stretched his legs and bought a pack of Winstons, a sausage-egg biscuit and two packages of Little Debbie chocolate-frosted mini doughnuts.

His day begins at 2 a.m. when he leaves Clayton, Ohio, with a load of Caterpillar heavy equipment parts destined for a distribution plant in the southern Indiana town of Washington.

It's 216 miles each way, and he is spending 30 miles or so on the new stretch of I-69 that opened two weeks ago that stops dead there at the 231 interchange. Miller guesses he is saving 30 minutes each way.

David Salmon of Loogootee hauls coal and crushed stone in his 2000 International semi. Monday morning, he has a 25-ton load of coal bound for Indianapolis from the Peabody coal mine not far from the U.S. 231 interchange. Coming back, he will load up with crushed stone in Spencer and haul it to Petersburg before his day is over.

He is saving a lot of time driving on the newest segment of I-69, and the cost of diesel fuel as well. "'By the end of the week, I'll have saved about $200 in fuel costs. I was spending about $1,400," he told The Herald-Times.

The construction of the 67-mile segment kept Salmon working during an economic downturn that hurt a lot of people in his business. "I hauled a lot of rock for that road, sometimes eight loads a day at 25 tons a load," the 32-year-old independent contractor said. "That highway kept me busy. If not for this interstate, I probably would have gone under in this economy."

But he worries about the small towns the highway bypasses. "Places like Bloomfield and Loogootee, they are going to suffer for this road," he said. "All the traffic and people, they are just going to pass small towns by."

Tracey Englert lives in Zionsville and travels throughout Indiana and Kentucky as a regional manager for Walgreens. She drove from Evansville to Indianapolis the day the new section of I-69 opened and was ecstatic when she cut nearly an hour off the trip. "I love the highway," she said, stopping for gas to fill her Nissan Rogue SUV and a trip to the ladies' room at the CountryMark station. "I thought it might shave 20 minutes off the drive, but it was so much more. I've been telling everyone."

She does not miss driving through the small towns that once slowed her travels. And she thinks the highway is safer to drive on.

Brian Trudt hopes people like the highway. He's spent two years helping build it, and is set to move on to another highway project in Illinois now that the I-69 project in Greene County is wrapped up. "It's shortened my commute to St. Louis by 40 minutes," he said.

Gene Hamilton was filling gas cans for mowing on a December day when the temperature was more like September. "I think it'll be just fine," the 76-year-old farmer said of I-69. "It'll be good for the truckers. These country roads have a lot of curves."

CountryMark manager Tammy Vest has worked at the small-town service station 13 years. She said about everyone who comes in has good things to say about the new highway. She lives nearby, and stays mostly on the local roads but appreciates the ability to get places faster on I-69.

But she is hearing rumors that a mega gas station might be heading her way; she hopes they are not true. "If they get a Flying J, then maybe a Cracker Barrel or something, no one will be coming in here for biscuit sandwiches," she said.

Vest hasn't noticed business picking up too much since the highway opened, but said there are definitely more people stopping in for lunch. "I had one couple who thought I-69 would get them to Anderson," she said. "I had to set them straight."

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