EVANSVILLE — When Leigh Montano first looked at the plans for the Mid-States Corridor, she didn’t know why it was being built.

She came onto the project with VS Engineering in 2020 to help hammer out a draft environmental impact statement for the highway, which is expected to run through Southwestern Indiana between Spencer County and the Crane naval base.

According to the impact statement, Montano’s focus was the project’s impacts on rivers and agriculture.

But the road’s existence didn’t make sense, she said. The Indiana Department of Transportation had just built Interstate 69 near the same area. And the project was – and remains – unpopular with residents, especially those who could lose their homes or businesses when the state starts buying land for right-of-way.

“Every step of the way we looked at this, no one had confidence in the project,” she said. “We’re going to displace people. We’re going to move farms. We’re going to impact wetlands and wildlife and agricultural fields. And for what? Why are we doing it?”

Montano exited the project in October 2021, and eventually left the environmental science industry altogether. The Mid-States Corridor, she said, was one of the “main drivers” behind her decision.

“The largest reason I quit the industry was I felt like I was not improving the environment,” she said. “I was just being another rubber stamp in a bureaucratic machine. And I couldn’t deal with that.”

She’s not alone in her criticisms. Take a drive through Southwestern Indiana and you’ll find yards dotted with anti-Mid-States Corridor signs. Public comment sessions that started after INDOT chose “alternative P” as its preferred route last month have attracted scores of angry residents, some of whom have threatened to leave the state if the highway is built.

Environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and Indiana Forest Alliance, have also come out against the project, saying it will damage wetlands and forests and pump additional automotive emissions into a region that already suffers from some of the worst air quality in the country.

Many of the project’s proponents have been business leaders or local politicians. That includes Jasper, Indiana, Mayor Dean Vonderheide, who told the Courier & Press the road will go a long way toward easing traffic on the semiladen U.S. 231, which cuts through residential portions of his city.

“Now that they’ve chosen a route, the number of people opposed to it has reduced some,” he said about Jasper residents. “The ones who were adamantly against it thought they were going to be impacted personally. And that’s always natural.”

In a statement to the Courier & Press, a spokesperson for the Mid-States Corridor pointed to the “core goals” of the project, including making it easier for trucks to get through the area; better connecting small communities to main thoroughfares like I-69; and improving accessibility to “major business markets” such as Jasper.

Reducing travel times is a secondary goal, but according to the impact statement, route P would only shave off about five minutes on a trip from Jasper to Indianapolis.

Montano said the road could make traveling through the area smoother. But to her, the negative impacts far outweigh the convenience.

‘Relocations’ and environmental problems


One of the the biggest problems? Some people will lose their land.

According to the impact statement, “alternative P” – which is expected to follow U.S. 231 from Spencer County before branching out and running parallel to the highway for the 54-mile trek to Crane – could cause almost 150 “relocations” of homes, businesses and farms. Right-of-way acquisition could also wipe out as much as 1,832 agricultural acres and upwards of 733 acres of “prime farmland.”

About 900 acres of forest could be affected, as well.

“Hundreds of Hoosiers will see their family’s homes, farms, and businesses destroyed,” community and environmental groups said in a joint statement last month.

Project spokesman Ed Green said decisions on land won’t come until “tier 2” of the project, and that INDOT will use “avoidance and minimization efforts to reduce impacts.” There is no cost estimate for the project yet.

The impact statement also confirms the corridor will increase emissions, but it claims the effects could be minimal because, by the time the road is completed, more people will be using electric vehicles.

“(EVs) are slowly gaining market share. EVs do not emit tailpipe emissions. It is reasonable to assume that in 2045, percentage of EVs in use will increase,” the statement reads.

As to how that assumption landed in the impact statement, Green pointed to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s efforts to beef up electric car-charging networks. Additionally, “most of the major car manufacturers have announced plans to significantly ramp up EV production in the coming years,” he said.

Montano scoffed at that. When it comes to embracing electric vehicles, Southern Indiana could lag behind other parts of the country, she said.

“I just can’t go out and by a $30,000 car right now. That’s just not feasible,” she said. “And I don’t know how many people in Southwestern Indiana can do that, either.”

‘We still need a road’

If you ask Vonderheide, the Mid-States Corridor must be built.

Some of the project’s critics have wondered why the state can’t just snag some federal dollars and revamp U.S. 231, since the Mid-States Corridor is expected to run right alongside it. But that, Vonderheide said, wouldn’t be enough. His “main objective” is a bypass around Jasper.

The city has an “enormous number of feeds” onto the highway, he said. That includes several driveways, forcing some residents to back into traffic. With poor sightlines, it can be difficult to see a semi barreling your way.

“We still need a road, specifically for semi-trucks going around the city as opposed to through the city,” he said. “(U.S. 231) goes right through the middle (of town). And that’s where our traffic congestion is and where the safety issues are.”

According to project documents on the Mid-States Corridor website, INDOT has been studying ways to reduce traffic and improve safety through the Jasper area since at least 1993. One of the several options that cropped up over the years was to build a bypass around Jasper and Huntingburg off U.S. 231.

But Green said easing congestion in that area is now just an extra benefit of the Mid-States Corridor – not one of the “core goals” of the project. And as far as reducing crashes, the Federal Highway Administration didn’t find “sufficient evidence” to include that as a core goal either, the impact statement says.

Still, Vonderheide sees the benefit of a new roadway connecting more people to I-69 and Crane.

“We are also sympathetic to anyone who’s going to be impacted,” he said. “You wish you could build something like this and it … doesn’t impact anybody. But the road is gonna have to go somewhere.”

Comment period extended to June 14

Leigh Montano always jokes that the only person who loves Indiana more than her is Leslie Knope.

“And she’s a fictional character,” she said about the Hoosier-state-obsessed lead of the TV show “Parks and Recreation.”

That love is what has Montano so worried. She’s afraid the Mid-States Corridor will be detrimental to many of things that make Indiana ecologically unique: abundant farmland; karst regions; beautiful forests.

She rejects the state’s belief that the Mid-States Corridor will bring new businesses and new residents. Making any economic predictions is almost impossible after the pandemic, she said. And taking care of the farmland the road may pave over would do more for the economy than any highway, she said.

INDOT recently extended public comment on the Mid-States Corridor through June 14. Montano wants people who agree with her to “see what’s going in in their backyards and realize they have a voice.”

“Unless something miraculous happens,” she said, “this project is moving forward.”
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