Private I-69 Celebration Held Amid Ongoing Tensions

Wed July 30, 2008 - Midwest Edition

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) Tensions surrounding the long-planned Interstate 69 extension show no sign of calming as a prominent lobby group readies for a private ribbon-cutting celebrating the start of construction.

Police officers arrested more than a dozen protesters July 14 as they blocked the entrance to an asphalt plant that will supply materials to build the 142-mi. (228 km) highway linking Evansville and Indianapolis. The protesters, who will be charged with trespassing and resisting arrest, had bound themselves with chains, police said.

Such resistance was a concern for those organizing the ceremony July 16 in Evansville — across the Ohio River from Henderson, Ky. — and part of the reason admission to the gathering was by invitation only.

The ceremony was sponsored by Hoosier Voices for I-69, which promoted the highway project to lawmakers and the public. Gov. Mitch Daniels was scheduled to give the keynote address at The Centre in Evansville.

Steve Schaeffer, executive director of Hoosier Voices, said he respects differences of opinion, but the potential for problems was too great with a public program.

“It’s really unfortunate that we have to take these measures because of our out-of-town opponents causing problems,” Schaeffer had said.

The decades-long debate over the highway through rural southwestern Indiana cleared a legal hurdle in December when a federal judge ruled against a lawsuit seeking to block construction based on the project’s environmental impact.

The lawsuit was filed by members of the Hoosier Environmental Council, Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, the Sassafras Audubon Society and six southern Indiana residents.

U.S. District Court Judge David Hamilton ruled that arguments opposing the route were “reasonable differences of opinion” but did nothing to prove violations of law.

Still, environmental advocates who oppose the highway continue to campaign against its construction.

Thomas Tokarski, a member of Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, said the project will destroy some 5,000 acres of farmland and 2,000 acres of natural forest when “global climate change is a real concern.”

“It was never a good idea to begin with, but it makes no sense right now. None at all,” Tokarski said.

The protesters arrested July 14 in Haubstadt, about 20 mi. north of Evansville, had chained themselves together in what police called a “sleeping dragon.” Officers called in a special team to remove the chains that bound the protesters together.

Each will be charged with trespassing and resisting arrest, police said.

Also on July 14, the state’s largest independent environmental group protested the private ceremony, calling it a “slap in the face to Hoosier citizens.”

“All appeals and objections to the route have been done in an open forum and subject to public and media scrutiny,” the Hoosier Environmental Council said in a statement. “The course set for groundbreaking on the controversial public project should be no different.”

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