Photograph by Steven Higgs
Earth First! activists launched a series of actions in mid-July along the I-69 route from Bloomington to Petersburg. This protest outside the I-69 planning office on Bloomington's West Second Street led to the office closing for the day. Protests occurred at the downtown Bloomington planning office as well.
The twin specters of I-69-corridor property owners being evicted and Mitch Daniels sinking a spade into the earth and declaring I-69 officially under construction have sparked a new wave of highway resistance in Bloomington.
"Eviction proceedings have already begun for half a dozen families whose homes once lay along the first two miles of the proposed route," Roadblock Earth First! activists said in a July 9 e-mail. "These people have been physically removed from their homes or will be removed in the coming weeks. And, unless I-69 is stopped, in the coming years over 400 more homes will find themselves similarly replaced by cold concrete."
In the communique, the activists announced the "evictions" of I-69 planning offices in Oakland City and Petersburg.
Tom Tokarski, from Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR), was unaware of the Earth First! actions when he sat down in the Soma Coffeehouse the next day. But he has talked to landowners in Southwest Indiana.
"People are definitely being bought out," he said. "They are definitely working on the first two miles."
He also said sources inside the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) say Daniels is planning a ceremonial, politically motivated groundbreaking in September so he can campaign as the governor who started I-69.
"He doesn't really care," Tokarski said. "He just wants to get it started so he can say, 'I started I-69.'"
While citizens are indeed starting to lose their homes to I-69, Tokarski said just about everything else Daniels is up to is little more than political posturing, starting with the claim that he has $700 million to build I-69 from Evansville to the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in Martin and Greene counties.
"That's a little iffy," he said.
What Daniels does have is $119 million that he told the State Legislature he wants to spend on I-69 construction in 2008 and 2009. That's part of the $700 million that he has earmarked for I-69 from his Major Moves sale of the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign consortium.
District 61 State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said the budget bill that appropriated the funding does not require Daniels to spend it on I-69.
"It does not restrict the use of $119,000,000 to the construction of the I-69 extension," he said in an e-mail. "More or less could be expended."
Tokarski said that with the cost of building highways rising faster than inflation and projects being cut across the country, there's no guarantee that the Legislature will approve any future money for I-69.
"I-69 is not important to the rest of the state," he said. "Some southern Democrats keep it alive, and the rest of the Democrats don't want to cross them."
But if they try to build I-69, a lot of other projects won't get built in the rest of the state, Tokarski said.
"I can't believe that in the future the Legislature is going to keep doling out big sums of money for I-69," he said.
And the whole notion that $700 million will build the road all the way to Crane is, in Tokarski's word, "absurd."
"It's enough to build the highway, optimistically, to Washington, at current prices for highway construction," he said. "Beyond that, there's no way they can get to Crane."
The governor's I-69 strategy, Tokarski said, is classic Daniels - "shoot from the hip ... without really looking at the long-term consequences."
If re-elected, he will have five more years to find the billions that will be needed to build the road. If he's not re-elected, it won't be his problem.
"He's willing to start it with what he's got for political reasons, obviously, and just say, 'We'll get the money somewhere,'" Tokarski said.
But the road ahead is filled with obstacles, starting with the citizen lawsuit that CARR, the Hoosier Environmental Council, CountUS! and others have filed challenging the I-69 process in federal court.
"According to what we're being told, we have a good chance," Tokarski said. "If we win that, we could stop them in their tracks, at least temporarily. Lawsuits are never final."
And there just aren't that many highway-funding options for multi-billion-dollar projects in the era of global warming and $3-a-gallon gasoline, not to mention the oil wars.
At the state level, Daniels has abandoned politically unpopular schemes to charge tolls on I-69 and to build two new private highways to raise cash for I-69 and other highway projects. And raising taxes through bond issues is always risky business in anti-tax Indiana.
At the federal level the word "pork" has become such a feared term that Congress is looking for ways to shift highway funding out of the legislative branch of government, Tokarski said. Ninth District Congressman Baron Hill, who represents Bloomington, has "waffled" all over the I-69 issue.
"It's one of those areas they don't want to touch," Tokarski said. "It's so controversial."
Daniels may dump a pile of dirt in the road this fall and stick a shovel in it, but as far as building anything more than a couple miles of roadway, "It's not a sure thing at all," Tokarski said.
Aside from the lawsuit, the grassroots activists' strategy will largely be political in the coming months, Tokarski said.
"We're going to have to be active politically," he said. "If we can get through to those southern Democrats, if we can activate people down there to stand up to these Democrats."
But that task is daunting, given that the state is now taking property, and citizens are scared, Tokarski said.
"People are just kind of resigned to it," he said. "People are just hoping they get a good price for their property."
They've also given up.
"We didn't find anybody who was up in arms or resisting," he said, "which is not surprising because there's a lot of intimidation going on."
State employees have been told they'll be fired if they say anything about I-69, Tokarski said. Others fear the state will screw them on their properties.
Anti-highway forces will hold a public meeting July 25 in Oakland City with an eminent domain lawyer who will help educate citizens about their rights.
"They got the first two miles before we knew what was going on," Tokarski said. "So we're trying to not let that happen again."
Meanwhile, Earth First! activists engaged in direct actions in cities along the route after they gathered in the woods outside Bloomington for a "Round River Rendezvous" July 2-8.
"We invite you to join the front lines of the fight against Interstate 69, a planned North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) superhighway that would run from Canada to Mexico and connect with Plan Puebla Panama to provide a fast route for free trade and the destruction of North America," EF! Indiana wrote in the May-June Earth First! newsletter.
In the gathering's aftermath, "Hayduke's Moving Company" moved the contents out of I-69 planning offices and into the street in Petersburg and Oakland City, and activists shut down the I-69 planning office on West State Road 48 in Bloomington after, the group's e-mail said, "Earth First!ers dropped a banner that read 'Stop I-69' onto its roof and 50 people assembled outside in protest."
"The downtown Bloomington section 5 office was the subject of two demonstrations: a small office invasion at 2:30 p.m. and a raucous march of 40 people at 4 p.m.," they continued. "Additionally, Earth First!ers hung more banners across Bloomington, one of which read 'For our farms, forests and futures - Resist I-69.'"
Billboards on Old State Road 37 North, the community's formerly scenic entryway, sported anti-I-69 messages to Daniels.
"Until evictions and construction are brought to a halt, individuals will continue to struggle in defense of their homes and against a superhighway project that will not benefit any of the communities of southwest Indiana," the e-mail said.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.