The first half of Interstate 69 will open to motorists tonight. It is something many long time road supporters thought they would not get to see in their lifetimes.
They are celebrating today with a parade from Evansville all the way up the 67-mile stretch to Crane. But there is also a lot of uncertainty about the road and the impact it will have on Southern Indiana.
As she looks out the walk up window at Mason’s Rootbeer Stand in Washington, Ind., Kelli Charkosky knows things are changing. Locals usually line up to get a frosty mug, but these days a lot more unfamiliar faces have been coming up to her window.
“Yeah I think having I-69 come through has really helped business summer,” Charkosky says. “You know there’s a lot of them staying in hotels around here, and I do think it has helped the businesses quite a bit.”
But those workers are leaving and the road will open tonight to motorists. Kelli, like many people who work at local businesses around here is not sure what to expect. The rootbeer stand is about a mile from the interstate and the fear is drivers will not want to get off and go into town. Kelli’s sister, Stacey Font, also works at Mason’s.
“I think you’ll see even more traffic slow-down, not quite as much people stopping in and coming to places, maybe taking the highway,” Font says. “A lot of the smaller businesses I think will notice a difference.”
Washington is typical of a small rural Indiana town. It was booming in the railroad days, but has gradually seen its population dwindle as rail lines gave way to roads. Many here say Washington got left behind. That is why more than two decades ago a group of business leaders started a grass roots effort to get an interstate that would connect their town to the rest of the state.
An Economic Perspective
Jerry Conover, Director of the Indiana Business Research Center, says a major highway like I-69 is first and foremost intended to serve as a commerce and transportation corridor between the United States, Canada and Mexico.
“There’s no doubt that having a solid high-speed efficient transportation infrastructure has greatly propelled the growth of the U.S. economy,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that it’s also propelling the economic growth in local areas along that corridor to the same extent.”
Conover says the best thing towns like Washington can do is put in place the infrastructure necessary to connect with the highway if they, too hope to see economic gains.
“One of the things that really determines the way economic growth happens in rural areas along interstates is the strength of economic development organization and strategic planning and initiatives that are already underway in those areas,” he says.
Compared to other areas, Conover says Washington is very well-positioned. He says it is likely the region will benefit from the close proximity to I-69 because its manufacturing businesses will be able to move supplies in and out easily.
“Well, Washington’s involvement in I-69 began at least as far back as 1984,” says Washington Mayor Joe Wellman. While his term in office just began in 2012, as a long-time resident and member of the local business community, I-69 has been on his radar for years.
“Job creation has been the number one reason because we see as you look at where businesses relocate or where they expand to, they want to be along highways, they want to be along interstate or good divided highway,” he says.”
“Building first class public assets is really a core function of government,” says Governor Mitch Daniels, who is credited for getting the money to build I-69.
When Daniels took office he leased the Indiana Toll Road and allocated $700 million from the lease to build the first three sections of I-69.
Conover says each town along the 67 mile stretch opening today, will have to find its strengths and promote those in order to capitalize on them.
“They have to find what their current strengths are and what their abilities are and then try to leverage that to get job growth and business growth and ultimately income for the whole community to rise,” he says.
A Changing Landscape
Wellman is a bit more optimistic. He says some businesses have already announced expansions and others are rumored to be thinking about adding more jobs. He also says this area has something going for it that cannot be accounted for in merely economic terms.
“Southern Indiana has a great reputation, I think for a great place to raise families,” he says. “I-69 will enable those people to be here and raise their families here and that will help the schools and the churches and the businesses and the city.”
Back at Mason’s Rootbeer stand, Linda Wichman and her dog Pepi have just driven up to get some food.
“I stop in here whenever I can- I love their conies,” Wichman says. She says she is uncertain about the effects of the interstate but hopeful it will help her town stay on the map.
“I think it’s gonna be nice, because from Evansville to here, we can just get on there, it’s probably gonna cut off a half an hour,” she says. “But, I think it’s gonna hurt Washington somewhat. I don’t know. That’s in the future. We don’t know.”
As the road enters its next phase, it will face its harshest opposition: people who are not just on the fence about I-69 but who have fought against its construction with lawsuits and protests since day one. In addition to the tough political landscape, the road construction will traverse some of the most difficult physical terrain in the state. And the money for the interstate project is running out.