Commerce Connector Draws Fire in Farm Country

Landowners fear low land values, say no one is listening.

Published on: Mar 21, 2007

If there's an issue hotter than the proposed update in Indiana's corn checkoff law this spring, it's waiting to see and watching what the legislature will do with Governor Daniels' highway proposals, including creating a 'Commerce Connector' toll road that would skirt east and south of Indianapolis, passing through mostly rural, farm country.

The idea first surfaced on the day after the November elections, when Governor Daniels floated the idea, and offered to remove the toll road option on the proposed I-69 stretch from Indianapolis to Evansville at the same time. The announcement came on the heels of gains by Democrats in the Indiana House. It also came after Governor Daniels Major Moves roads program last year included a 75-year lease of the current Indiana Toll Road in northern Indiana to a private company with foreign ownership.

The Indianapolis Commerce Connector is only one of two included in Governor Daniels proposal. The second one would take traffic into the southern part of Lake County, trying to alleviate congestion fro traffic headed to and from Chicago.

The proposals have been described in adjectives ranging from glowing terms to the sublime, to downright ornery descriptions. Based on our calls, emails and conversations with landowners, farmers and residents in areas where the Indianapolis connector would someday be built, most folks who would be directly affected are adamantly against the proposal. But at the same time, many feel that in the end, what they think won't matter.

Indiana Prairie Farmer took a position in the March issue in Indiana Prairie Farmer Says, neither for nor against the proposal. Instead, our view was that it was worth study, but trying to make a decision in such a short time after the idea was first made public might not be in the best public interest.

Just dismissing the idea as ludicrous could be just as harmful to future generations, and future commerce in Indiana. Interstate 65, running from Indianapolis to Louisville, became reality in the '60s. At the time land was being bought and the road was being planned, farmers and landowners were just as upset as their successors are today. If anything, the cries against it were louder, because there were more farmers, smaller farms, and thus more people affected back then than would be involved today.

What if I-65 hadn't been built? U.S. 31 from Indianapolis to Franklin approached a parking lot on Friday afternoons in the mid-60's. Imagine trying to move up or down it today, now that the southside population has multiplied many times over.

Is that justification for automatically saying, go for it- build us the road? Of course not. The two are different- before I-65, there was no suitable route for trucks. Today, I-65 is still here, maintained in reasonably good shape, and used by a large number of trucks and car traffic. Plus, the new road would be a toll road, with more limited access than with a normal Interstate. Some folks make a good case that there would be less development potential along this toll road route. Supposedly, the ability to develop and boost the economy of rural communities has been touted as one of the benefits of this plan.

Perhaps the cry heard the loudest from those who fear they will be directly affected, ie, lose land to the project, is that they won't be fairly compensated. Farmland values are high in all doughnut counties and in Lake County. But development property is even higher. At least part of the route of these proposed roadways would pick up land along the fringe of developing areas, where landowner expectations once they're ready to sell are already far higher than just selling for farmland value.

Fearing eminent domain won't lead to fair settlements is a concern, but it's premature. Right now the debate ought to be about if the road is needed in the first place. Sound minds and cool heads should evaluate the pros and cons of building the road vs. doing northing or seeking a more attractive alternative, both for today and for generations down the road.

What's disturbing is that one attempt to set the issue aside for careful study failed miserably in the Senate in February. Here's hoping reason and not pure politics help decide the outcome of this understandably sensitive issue.