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Crews work on a section of Interstate 69 in September in Daviess County. The first three sections of the road will open Monday.

Visionaries reflect on interstate extension

– It is hard to believe, but Interstate 69 did not start in an office, where its proponents had to convince others the road is needed.

Nor did it start a boardroom, where countless meetings and decisions were made on its potential impact or decide where it would go should there be a way to fund it.

It really didn’t start at the desk of Gov. Mitch Daniels, who decided to spend the $700 million to build the road, or in the cabs of hundreds of trucks who moved tons of earth in building the 67 miles that residents here will be driving on this Thanksgiving holiday.

The interstate on the city’s east side, set to open Monday, was definitely moved along in these places, but its start was small, at a breakfast table.

“That was the beginning of the road right there at my breakfast table,” Graham told the Washington Times-Herald.

It was this chance meeting in the spring of 1990 at David Graham’s breakfast table with many of the leaders of the I-69 movement: Graham, David Cox, Jo Arthur and David Reed.

Accounted in “Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway,” author Matt Dellinger recounted the story about how Reed, working on a study for the Hudson Institute, was staying with the Grahams. That morning, Graham invited Cox and Arthur over for omelets and led to a discussion about the brain drain, causing the brightest to leave the area.

That led to a discussion of an interstate highway through the area that would connect Evansville and Indianapolis.

It was then that Reed, according to Dellinger’s account, said the highway should not just be for Indiana, but other states should get interested. This is where the idea for Interstate 69 got its start.

“David Reed said, ‘Look my friends, you will never get anywhere with a road from Evansville to Indianapolis,’ ” Graham said. “You have to have one with a broader scope to get interest in Washington D.C., because no one there really cares much about southern Indiana.

“He was right,” Graham said.

It is from there that Graham would travel up and down the I-69 corridor, garnering support for a new road that would foster new businesses and bring economic development to the home he loved. Cox, Reed and Arthur also logged serious miles and got the public of southern Indiana behind the need for the highway.

John Caruthers and the late James Newland opened up the windows of support from Washington to Texas, places that today are still lobbying for a new interstate.

Had it not been for this event, Monday’s opening would have never happened. For many at that breakfast, they never thought they would see a road at all.

“I think we had to think bigger than what we originally had,” Cox said.

The reason for the interstate was, in the beginning, to bring more businesses and industry to the local community. Cox was head of the Daviess County Growth Council, now the county Economic Development Corp. He and Graham knew then, in 1990, that Daviess County was going to need four-lane roads.

“We knew that in order to grow, we had to have access to four-lane roads,” Cox said.

Cox would recall the story of a prospective business going through Daviess County, looking at possible sites with a helicopter.

“They said, ‘We don’t see the four-lane roads,’ ” Cox said. “They didn’t even land.”

But none actually believed they would see the road finished in their time. Some believed it would be years before they would ever see the road.

“Our philosophy was to keep the idea in a folder on top of a desk and if there was ever a way to fund it, we would build it,” Cox said. “I think without Gov. Daniels’ initiative on Major Moves, it wouldn’t have happened in my lifetime.”

Many of the key players said politicians did pay attention to the presentations and pledged support, but they said if it weren’t for Daniels, the plan would still be in a folder on someone’s desk.

The $700 million for building I-69 from Evansville to Crane came from Daniels’ decision in January 2005 to sell the Indiana Toll Road to a consortium for $3.85 billion. The deal, called Major Moves, has funded road construction in the eight years Daniels has been governor.

“(The interstate) wouldn’t have been in the stage it is without him,” Arthur said. “Whether you like the idea of the Toll Road, that was the reason we got where we are at. It was a way to come and get this done.”

Graham, who has known Daniels for 40 years back when they worked for Sen. Richard Lugar, said the foresight the governor shown is “the kind of guy Mitch Daniels is.”

“He’s just that kind of guy,” Graham said. “He can see the forest through the trees and he knows what’s good for the state.

“We had great lip service from all the governors and senators and congressmen, but no one really helped us. They all stood back and said that would be nice if we could afford it. Mitch Daniels is the reason we got it.”

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