This is the second in a series exploring the history behind Interstate 69, Indiana's Billion-Dollar Boondoggle.

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Like newspapers everywhere, the Bloomington Herald-Times views the world in starkly geographic terms. For both circulation and newsgathering purposes, the H-T editors subdivide the paper according to the map: Bloomington, Monroe County, the Region, the State, the Nation, and the World. The Region consists of the surrounding counties - Morgan, Owen, Greene, Brown, and Lawrence.

So, in the early 1990s, when Gov. Evan Bayh sent out the first signals of his intent to build a four-lane highway from Evansville to Indianapolis via Bloomington, the facts be damned, the H-T editors assigned the story to Region reporter Laura Lane. She covered Greene County, through which the proposed Bayh highway would pass over new-terrain on its way to Ind. 37 south of Bloomington. Laura covered I-69 when it was called the "Southwest Indiana Highway." I picked up the story when it became I-69.

One of the earliest H-T references to the Southwest Indiana Highway as I-69, perhaps the first, came in a story I wrote on Nov. 28, 1991, titled "Evansville highway funded by Congress." The story began:

"The proposed Indianapolis-to-Evansville highway that would pass through Monroe and Greene counties has achieved official federal high-priority status under a highway-funding bill passed Wednesday by Congress.

"An extension of Interstate 69 from Indianapolis to Memphis, Tenn., which includes the Indianapolis-Evansville link, is among the 'high priority' corridors identified in the bill, according to a spokeswoman for 8th District U.S. Rep. Frank McCloskey, D-Ind."

The $151 billion, six-year highway funding bill designated the Indy-Memphis segment of I-69 as part of a 155,000-mile extension of the Interstate system called the "National Highway System." The bill provided $28 million for the Evansville-Indianapolis stretch.

The story explained that the highway was to be built in three sections: from Bloomington west across new terrain to tiny Newberry in western Greene County; south along Ind. 57 from Newberry to Petersburg; and continuing south on 57 to Evansville.

At that time, Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) officials estimated the road's cost at $800 million. Spokesman Don Shields told me the 32-mile stretch from Bloomington to Newberry would begin in 1996 and be completed in 1999. The entire Evansville-to-Bloomington stretch would be done sometime between 2005 and 2010, depending on funding, he said.

"The fact that the Indianapolis-to-Memphis corridor has been designated as part of the new National Highway System is a real plus in terms of future funding," former Bloomington Mayor McCloskey told me. Five days later, I wrote a top-of-the-front-page story titled “Highway debate rolls on despite federal vote.”

The first person quoted in that story was Tom Tokarski, from Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR). As a reporter who had covered citizen activists like Andy Mahler, Bob Klawitter, Libby Frye, and Margo Blackwell, I had sensed from the moment I first heard Laura Lane talk about Tom that he was that caliber of activist. His reaction to the $28 million Congress had earmarked for I-69 confirmed that gut sense.

"It's kind of renewed my energy," he told me. "Just because they've got money doesn't make it right."

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During that interview, Tokarski showed me the Southwest Indiana Highway Feasibility Study, which came to be known as the "Donohue Study" after the lead consultant on the project, Donohue & Associates from Waterloo, Iowa.

The thick, light tan, spiral-bound document, which was an eye-opener in 1991, is even more enlightening today. Released in February 1990, Donohue couldn't have been more on point in its observations, conclusions and recommendations. Among them:

  • The highway could not be justified on economic grounds;
  • The highway would be the most expensive ever built in Indiana; and
  • The struggle over where the highway would be built would be a political battle between cities in the region.
  • Republican Gov. and Evansville native Robert Orr had initiated the Donohue study in early 1988, as Bayh was running against Lt. Gov. John Mutz for governor. On March 11 that year, INDOT issued a "Statement of Interest" for a study on the feasibility of building the Southwest Indiana Highway. Among its nine "objectives":

  • Provide information to the public and solicit input for the study through a community participation process;
  • Identify alternative routes; and
  • Determine which alternative routes are viable.
  • Donohue & Associates, along with Cambridge Systematics from Massachusetts and Congdon Engineering Associates from Indianapolis, began the yearlong study on Aug. 31, 1988. They evaluated three distinct north-south corridors in Indiana: Evansville to Indianapolis, Rockport to Indianapolis; and Tell City to Indianapolis. Within those three broad corridors, they evaluated 10 possible routes, as well as a no-build alternative.

    Through August 1989, the consultants conducted a comprehensive, in-depth inquiry into the feasibility of building a Southwest Indiana highway to interstate standards.

    They asked local governments, Chambers of Commerce, and various businesses, tourism and industrial development groups to document their local highway needs. More than 600 "major businesses responded to a questionnaire about the origins and destinations of their shipments."

    They asked state and federal agencies to provide information and viewpoints that "were used in the route development, business expansion and attraction, tourism attraction and environmental impact aspects of the study."

    They held 14 public meetings throughout the region to solicit input from the citizenry. "Interest and participation from the general public was very high for a study of this type," the study's authors said. "… The total attendance at these meetings was over 3,600 persons."

    The public input foreshadowed the next 13 years of heated debate over I-69 and its ultimate outcome. "The public indicated overwhelming support for roadway improvements in Southwest Indiana," the study said. "Controversy existed, however, regarding which specific route or routes might be developed, as many viewed this study as a competition between the major cities in the area."

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    While the Donohue Study did consider environmental and other impacts the highway might have, its emphasis was on economics. "Because the major focus of the study was to determine the economic benefits associated with highway improvements and to select routes that would have good benefit/cost ratios, the cost and the economic development potential factors were considered more important in the screening process than the other factors," the authors said.

    For context, Donohue reviewed a number of other studies that had evaluated the feasibility of a Southwest Indiana highway, all of which reached the same conclusion - such a project could not be justified on economic grounds.

  • A 1966 study titled the "North-South Toll Road Feasibility Study" concluded "none of the alternative alignments examined would be financially feasible."
  • A 1980 study titled "The Western Indiana Toll Road Feasibility Study" concluded "none of the alternatives would produce enough revenue to be financially feasible" and recommended that "existing roads in the area receive priority for improvement."
  • A 1982 study from the Indiana Department of Highways, INDOT's forerunner, titled "Indianapolis-Evansville Improved North-South Corridor Feasibility Report by Indiana DOH," assessed the feasibility of an improved north-south corridor "in terms of vehicle travel time saved and the cost of construction, and concluded that the project was not feasible."
  • Only the 1985 “Feasibility Study, SR 37 From I-64 to SR 60,” recommended any route for consideration. “One of the major reasons given for this recommendation was the traffic that this route would serve from Patoka Reservoir and the proposed Tillery Hill Recreation Area,” the Donohue consultants said.

    Due in large part to a citizen campaign led by the late Bob Klawitter, Protect Our Woods, and the Hoosier Environmental Council, Tillery Hill was never built, so even that justification was ill-founded.

  • The Donohue Study reiterated the same economic concerns as the previous studies: "It is important to insure that the project benefits clearly and substantially exceed the costs before making a commitment of scarce federal, state and local funds. The project must represent a prudent expenditure of public funds."

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    The Donohue Study authors concluded the Southwest Indiana Highway could not meet the prudent-expenditure-of-public-funds test. It found that under the most optimistic set of assumptions, the highest benefit/cost ratio to be expected for any of the 10 routes was 1.54 to 1.The rest ranged from 0.34 to 1.23.

    What follows is the entire Conclusions section of the study's Executive Summary:

    "In conclusion, none of the routes analyzed in this study are recommended for construction solely on an economic feasibility basis. This recommendation is based on the following:

  • "Low benefit/cost ratios were found for the range of alternative assumptions used in the sensitivity analysis, considered as a whole. Given these results, it is inappropriate to focus solely on the ratio resulting from the most optimistic set of assumptions, when under several other sets of assumptions the ratio is well below 1.00.
  • "There is inherent uncertainty in any long-range economic forecasting process. The benefit/cost ratios developed in this study include employment and income benefits based on such forecasts. It is difficult to establish a specific benefit/cost ratio which determines economic feasibility. However, Cambridge Systematics' experience in other states has shown that projects with benefit/cost ratios in excess of 1.5 have been given priority funding. While this ratio has not been sanctioned officially by any state or organization, it has been found in our experience to represent a reasonable lower bond for project selection.
  • "Funding would require creation of a multi-county authority and commitment of considerable local dollars for a long time period. This would assume that the highway is the highest priority for each of the counties along the route and that each county government is willing to devote significant revenue sources to the project for about 30 years. There is no such precedent of this type in the area. If undertaken, this project would be the most costly highway built in the State of Indiana since the development of the interstate system."
  • ***

    The ink on the Donohue report, almost literally, had not even dried before the Bayh administration signaled it would ignore the study's recommendations. A 16-page "Addendum to the Economic Impacts of Highway Improvements in Southwestern Indiana" was added to the Donohue Study in December 1989, just two months before the report was released.

    Submitted to INDOT for the City of Evansville and sponsored by the Greater Evansville Chamber of Commerce, the addendum took issue with Donohue’s conclusion that the “A/Freeway” was not feasible. A/Freeway would have connected Evansville with Indianapolis via Bloomington, roughly the new-terrain option that Gov. Frank O’Bannon announced as his choice in January 2003.

    "In brief, what are labeled as realistic assumptions, actually appear conservative and those termed optimistic appear realistic in nature," concluded the addendum's author, a Bethesda, Md. consulting firm. "Thus, the consultant's recommendation that the A/Freeway option not be considered for construction should, in fact, be reversed."

    The Donohue Study consultants left no question how they felt about this addendum. They introduced it in a one-paragraph introduction, written in all caps:

    "THE FOLLOWING ADDENDUM IS BEING INCLUDED AS AN ATTACHMENT TO THIS REPORT AT THE REQUEST OF THE INDIANA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION. THIS ADDENDUM DOES NOT REPRESENT THE WORK PRODUCT OF DONOHUE, CAMBRIDGE SYSTEMATICS OR CONGDON ENGINEERING, AND THESE FIRMS DO NOT ENDORSE IT."

    Evan Bayh wasted no time shelving all of the Donohue Study except the Evansville Chamber's addendum. But Donohue's conclusions, which have never been contradicted in 13 years, have formed the basis for a debate that is still rolling on today.

    I-69 cannot be justified on economic grounds. It will be the most expensive highway ever built in the state of Indiana. And the authors' observation that this was really a war between cities was prophetic.

    I was told by a reliable source that when Frank O'Bannon called Terre Haute Mayor Judy Anderson last January to tell her he was recommending the new-terrain route, he told her: "Terre Haute has its Interstate. Bloomington is getting this one."

    Steven Higgs is editor of The Bloomington Alternative.