Mid-States Corridor to Tier 2 study amid continued local discourse

It’s hard to know what to make of the Mid-States Corridor, a much-discussed “improved highway connection” project that will begin at S.R. 66 near the William H. Natcher Bridge crossing the Ohio River at Rockport, continue generally through the Huntingburg and Jasper area, and extend north to connect to I-69. Listen closely, and you’ll hear a wide range of opinions.

Our Hannah News Service sister newsletter INDIANA LEGISLATIVE INSIGHT has been following the project since its inception, and more than four years ago detailed for readers there 10 alternatives on a total of five different routes, and the local and regional economic imperative for the project.

An independent study conducted by Ginovus and the Indiana Public Policy Institute forecasted sizable gains in economic and workforce development – the generation of $150 million in additional investment and 500 to 700 new jobs – in Lawrence County and Orange County from the potential initial construction of the Mid-States Corridor (3F) route from Jasper to Bloomington. That boon is focused on both tourism (principally in Orange County) and manufacturing

(in Lawrence County).

Advances in commercial defense, agribusiness, manufacturing, and tourism were also expected to come from the potential construction, and a route following S.R. 231 was favored by defense interests for its proximity to Naval Support Activity Crane. Others were enamored of the shortest – and potentially least expensive – route that would connect with I-69 near Washington.

Our sister newsletter reported then about the particular interest in the project from U.S. Sen. Mike Braun (R), whose Jasper-based logistics firm would be a beneficiary, and the Cook Group, whose business interests in Lawrence County and Monroe County and casino in French Lick could also take advantage of the new route . . . but there is also considerable public backlash.

“Totally unnecessary road,” laments citizen Kyle Hass. “Only the rich and the rich politicians want this road …. Go ahead, destroy the livelihoods of life-long residents of the area. It’s so frustrating that this is moving forward with probably 90-95% of people living here opposing the road.” Some residents of Jasper and surrounding areas are particularly disenchanted with MSC, with Loogootee Mayor Noel Harty (D) observing that “almost everyone I talk to is against it … the economic impact, the city would suffer.” Regardless, having completed its Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement, MSC begins Tier 2 work, moving ever closer to completion.

Lochmueller Group is the project manager for INDOT on the effort, and public outreach manager Nicole Minton lauds MSC, considering it an example of a stellar alliance between the Indiana Department of Transportation and the community.

“This project benefited from partnerships. The Mid-States Corridor study is an example of [INDOT’s] commitment to cultivating and maintaining great relationships with external partners to drive success. Funding for Tier 1 was made possible by legislation that expanded the use of Regional Development Authorities,” Minton tells your favorite transportation newsletter. “This public and private sector partnership advanced the infrastructure project.”

That 2017 Regional Development Authority legislation engendered controversy upon its passage. In March 2024, Loogootee columnist Jim Arvin dragged Sen. Braun into the muck, shaming him “and his cronies” for their support for the RDA law (which allowed the project to be authorized without needing voter approval). Braun was in the Indiana House of Representatives at the time. Calling it the most “egregious example” of how RDAs have been used, Arvin believes the MSC will “cut through forest and farmlands in Dubois County, Daviess County, and Martin County.” For the record: Sen. Mark Messmer (R) of Jasper – now the Republican nominee for the open CD 08 seat – also backed the MSC vote, believing it to be an important new development for the area.

In response to Loogootee residents’ concerns, Minton asserts that due diligence has been undertaken.

“The Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement showed a preferred alternative that followed a path west of Loogootee. Based on community feedback, three additional variations were included in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Loogootee area. One variation uses the path of U.S. 231 through Loogootee, and two variations were added east of Loogootee,” she explains.

Addressing Concerns

INDOT was asked to consider these variations to minimize the potential for negative impacts on Loogootee’s local economy, notes Minton. She believes the shifts have the potential to support enhanced economic activity in Martin County.

By adding variations to the federal environmental impact statement (FEIS), the selection of a single variation at Loogootee was deferred to Tier 2, so the detailed localized economic studies, traffic studies, and public outreach in Loogootee and Martin County will occur during the section’s Tier 2 Study.

With Kayla Dwyer of the Indianapolis Star calling the project, in some ways, comparable to I-69, the Mid-States Corridor is no small undertaking.

The closest similarity between I-69 and MSC is its tiered study approach to separate broader issues, clarifies Minton. MSC’s recently published FEIS examines the general location of the highway. The upcoming Tier 2 studies are more in-depth, studying site-specific impacts. However, Minton insists that the two projects are “different in magnitude.” A simple comparison of scope: I-69 is 142 miles and MSC is 54 miles. However, both projects will dismantle many homesteads, businesses, and land parcels in the wake of their construction. Part of the reason for Loogootee/Jasper’s opposition is their large Amish population, who use horse-and-buggy carriages to get around. They will receive little benefit from the MSC’s construction and will have to wrestle with substantive life changes because of it.

Refined, Preferred Alternative P

Pre-Tier 1 studies showed a large range of potential impacts on citizens and companies – in response, INDOT created “Alternative P,” a route using U.S. 231 from Spencer County to I-64 before running parallel with 231 until it reaches the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center. The naval base is a place of employment for many Loogootee residents, perhaps creating commuting benefits for that community. Alternative P was later further developed through a series of small tweaks labeled “refined preferred Alternative P,” or RPA P.

RPA P received much public comment (all of which the Lochmueller Group recorded and took into consideration). At an Odon meeting, 400 people showed up with more than 24 speakers preparing individual statements. For perspective – the Town of Odon’s population only clocks in at 1,388 (circa 2022). Another meeting packed the Jasper Arts Center – an auditorium that seats 675 people. While some spoke in favor, many opposed the project. As recently as May this year, Martin County resident Jason McCoy hosted a public meeting at Loogootee High School to outline three directives for residents who seek to oppose the MSC. Hundreds of attendees showed up.

Environmental Impact

We’ve read Tier 1’s findings and it echoes Minton’s comments, but it is also important to note that the MSC environmental impact is not zero. The FEIS predicts anywhere from 75 to 108 residential homes will need to be “relocated” under RPA P. That number is, surprisingly, more than the original alternative in the draft study, which predicted 56 to 91 affected homes. Other relocations include six to 22 businesses, 24 to 37 agricultural structures (barns, silos, etc.), and four to seven churches, schools, and libraries. At maximum, 156 structures may be dismantled to complete the current MSC route. While Tier 2

studies may result in additional changes to these numbers, it’s clear we’re trending upward.

While the RPA P impacts natural habitats less than the original plan, the road’s construction still increases carbon dioxide emissions and impacts thousands of acres of forest and farmland.

The Hoosier Environmental Council, the Sierra Club, and the Indiana Forest Alliance analyzed the original project, finding that the MSC’s construction “gravely” affected forests, floodplains, wetlands, and farmland. The organizations fear that endangered Indiana bats and several river dwellers could experience a large amount of habitat loss. The FEIS addresses this: the statement acquiesces that any configuration of the MSC may impact habitats. The review also clarifies that RPA P specifically could indeed still impact several species of endangered bats and mussels.

Another voice against the MSC’s environmental impact is past MSC backer Leigh Montano, who threw in the towel after helping to compile the original 2021 environmental impact statement as a VS Engineering employee (and ultimately left the environmental science field completely, citing disillusionment with the entire sector).

Let’s not forget the political makeup of the Mid States Corridor Regional Development Authority board: all five members are Spencer County and Dubois County appointees while the adversely affected Martin County and Daviess County have no representation. Residents have repeatedly expressed concerns about potential bias.

But the opposition is certainly not monolithic.

Jasper Mayor Dean Vonderheide (R) tells Jon Webb of the Evansville Courier & Press that the road will “go a long way” towards easing traffic on U.S. 231 and therefore portions of Jasper that the highway passes through. He feels the selection of RPA P reduced the number of Jasper citizens who stand opposed: “The ones who were adamantly against it thought they were going to be impacted personally … [and] that’s always natural.”

What’s Next?

Minton reveals to us that Lochmueller and INDOT will begin Tier 2 work shortly.

The first section of work this summer will focus on Dubois County, identified as Section of Independent Utility 2. The study area extends from I-64, around Huntingburg and Jasper, to S.R. 56 at Haysville. Tier 2’s completion will allow for final decisions on location and design to be made, but it likely won’t conclude until at least 2026.

At this stage in the game, it’s very unlikely that MSC will be shut down despite continued opposition.

Part of the reason the Mid-States Corridor is hard to knock down is the length and breadth of its powerful backers. Many of its proponents are politicians and other powerful, influential Hoosiers: OFS Brands Holding CEO Hank Menke; Mark Schroeder, CEO of Jasper-based Bancorp Inc.; Ivy Tech Community College President Sue Ellspermann (a Dubois County resident who served as lieutenant governor); attorney Scott Blazey; and Mulzer Crushed Stone President Ken Mulzer Jr. of Evansville, to name a few.

Indeed, we’ve told you that Sen. Braun is a Jasper native who understands from his logistics business the nuances and needs of transportation in the region and has been a key champion of the route both nationally and locally. Of course, Sen., Braun is also the Republican nominee for governor, and can steer the project to completion as an INDOT priority should he be elected.

Key to the project as well is federal funding, and Sen. Braun can work with the Senate on that. Recall also that U.S. Sen. Todd Young (R) practiced law in Orange County, where his in-laws have roots, and is well-acquainted with the inadequacies of roads around Paoli and French Lick. Sen. Messmer is likely to be the next Member of Congress from CD 08, and he will add to the Dubois County-area clout. Then there’s the fact that Indiana already has two House members on the key House transportation panel) one a Democrat, one a Republican), and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg understands the situation in Southern Indiana and the need to quickly disburse infrastructure funding.

Tier 1’s FEIS took years to complete and Tier 2’s investigations will, too. Since Tier 2 seeks to further address the specific concerns of Martin County residents, perhaps we’ll also see a swing in public opinion.

When asked what the MSC will give back to Hoosiers, Lochmueller’s Minton cites a “detailed analysis” predicting crash reduction, localized congestion relief, and economic development support. Beyond the benefits to motorists, the purpose of the improved transportation link is, per Minton, to improve business and personal regional connectivity in Dubois County and Southern Indiana, and improve highway connections to existing multimodal locations from Southern Indiana. Minton also emphasizes relieving traffic congestion specifically in Dubois County as an important project goal.

Infrastructure costs money, and funds aren’t divvied out to every proposed project. Merit must be shown. If the proposed route benefits and expedites Hoosier supply chains while de-clogging major county roads, it may end up being a boon to Indiana citizens . . . even if the immediate benefit of the road is hard to see for the layperson. Simply said, do not underestimate the fact that Indiana stands at the Crossroads of America, and has been positioning itself as a logistics hub. One thing sorely lacking, those south of U.S. 50 tell us, is a central route from the William H. Natcher Bridge crossing the Ohio River at Owensboro, Kentucky, to a commerce connector in Indiana.

This assortment of opinions is nothing new when it comes to Indiana’s road projects. Since time immemorial, Hoosiers have disagreed on what to do with our state’s roads. As the Crossroads of America, Indiana infrastructure contends with large amounts of out-of-state freight and vehicle utilization. In short: there is always something to improve upon, something to better. Recall that the I-69 project, to which this effort has been compared, took a good generation to come to fruition, and overcame assorted spats about routes (remember the greenfield vs. existing route debate?) to reap praise today as it poised to make its final connection to I-465.

We’ll keep you updated on the policy, politics, and personalities as Tier 2 work begins.