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Fighting the NAFTA Super-Highway

The day after John McCain flew to Canada to glorify the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), 73-year-old Rosie Edwards repeatedly laughed about her flood-ravaged home in Martinsville, Ind.

“I’ve cried all I can cry,” the grandmother of 55 grand and great-grandchildren said on June 21 in her moldy, now-gutted home of six years. “I’ve lost everything.”

Just across State Road 37, which Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and his Democratic opponent Jill Long Thompson envision as an extension of the Interstate 69 NAFTA Highway, Bill Bergman likewise chuckled. He became a minor media star after painting “Mitch, Make Me an Offer?” on the side of his home and signed it “I-69 Backer.”

“If I don’t hear from him soon, it’s going to be ‘Ditch Mitch’ on the roof,” said Bergman, who sees I-69 as “part of progress.”

In response to the flood and declining economic conditions, long-time highway opponents argued the I-69 NAFTA Highway is now even more economically unfeasible in a state where the transportation research group TRIP says 32 percent of its “major roads are in poor or mediocre condition” and 22 percent of its bridges “are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.”

On June 20, the day McCain spoke to the Economic Club of Canada, Daniels also sicced state and local police agencies on I-69 NAFTA Highway opponents in Gibson County, dislodging two from a tree-sit protest.

In response to the arrests, youthful protesters engaged in civil disobedience around Indiana that led to at least six more arrests. About 50 took over the streets of downtown Bloomington on June 21, carrying torches, banging drums and chanting anti-authoritarian incantations such as, “You can’t put our friends in jail, we will drive the final nail.”

***

The Martinsville flooding only amplifies the arrogance that underlies the mindset of McCain, Daniels, Long Thompson and NAFTA Highway supporters, according to Tom and Sandra Tokarski from Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR).

I-69 currently runs from the U.S.-Canada border at Port Huron, Mich., to the north side of Indianapolis. The highway lobby’s plans are to extend it from Indianapolis’s southwest side to the U.S.-Mexico border at Laredo, Texas.

Consistent with Daniels’s life’s work — from his career as a drug company executive to his role in bankrupting working-class investors at the Indianapolis Power and Light Co. (IPALCO) to his stint as George W. Bush’s budget director to his three-and-a-half years as governor — his interest in I-69 is reactionary.

“He wants the big money from the highway construction lobby,” Sandra Tokarski said. “That is the bottom line. If there weren’t big highway construction lobby money coming in to all these politicians, especially Mitch Daniels, this thing would have been dead many years ago.”

Tom Tokarski argued that an array of factors, of which the flooded highway is but one, have converged this summer to highlight the arrogance behind Indiana’s determination to build I-69.

With gasoline surpassing $4 a gallon and no prospect of coming down, citizens are driving less, which means the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) is receiving less revenue from gasoline taxes, the state’s primary source of funding for highway and bridge construction and maintenance, Tokarski said.

“We think INDOT’s funding levels are away down,” he said.

And as with fuel, food and everything else, highway construction costs are skyrocketing.

“Everybody is saying the costs are just through the roof,” he said.

But, even though the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates the cost of crude oil has jumped 68 percent from 2007-2008, Daniels, the highway lobby and Indiana media continue using five-year-old INDOT propaganda that estimated I-69 construction costs at $1.8 billion.

“It’s a miracle highway because the cost never goes up,” Sandra Tokarski said.

***

With the now-undeniable proof that State Road 37 — the planned I-69 corridor through Martinsville — is in a floodplain, the NAFTA Highway’s real costs have risen again, Tom Tokarski said.

To avoid becoming a “dam” that would exacerbate flooding, the highway will have to be elevated, perhaps built on pillars, he said.

“I can’t imagine what that’s going to cost,” he said.

INDOT spokesman Andy Dietrick responded that the flood will have no impact.

“An analysis of the flood plain pertaining to the I-69 corridor in the Martinsville area was conducted long before the recent flooding, as part of the Tier 1 environmental study,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Alternative. “The latest flooding validates the data gathered during that study.”

Tokarski responded that the Tier 1 study offers no guidance.

“The Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) says that existing SR-37 will be used through Martinsville,” he said. “State Road 37 washed out during the flood. If that roadway is used, as it exists, for I-69 then INDOT will be building in a known floodplain that has already washed out once. The FEIS also says a raised urban section through Martinsville would be ‘considered.'”

The FEIS says the proposed route from SR-39 south of Martinsville to I-465 in Indianapolis may require reconstruction of existing SR-37, Tokarski said.

“This tells me that the corridor through Martinsville has not been evaluated to handle the now-known flood threat,” he said. “Bottom line: Andy Dietrich is mistaken. The plans are not fixed, and the cost is not known.”

***

Bergman, who said his home is situated at a planned highway intersection, pointed to his kitchen sink to illustrate how high the flood was without a highway dam.

“The spigot, it’s got mud on it,” he said. “That’s how high it was in here.”

And while Bergman doesn’t use the term “ignorance” while explaining how water got from nearby Indian Creek into his sink, he doesn’t mince words.

“I’ll just be blunt,” he said. “The city planning department and the city engineers, they’ve built a slab of concrete and pavement from the top of the hill all the way down.”

Specifically he referred to the sprawling development along SR 37 that includes Martinsville High School, Wal-Mart, two car dealerships and “all those restaurants.” With nothing to absorb the flood water, it overfilled the Sartor Ditch that parallels the roadway and flooded homes for hundreds of yards on both sides.

In response to Bergman’s highly publicized offer to sell his property to the state for I-69, INDOT issued a news release on June 17 saying, “Governor Mitch Daniels has asked the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to begin purchasing homes along State Road 37 in Martinsville that will eventually be impacted by the construction of Interstate 69.”

INDOT said it would begin making contact with homeowners whose properties would be impacted by I-69 construction “by the end of the week.” But Jeff Hurst, whose home may be in the I-69 right-of-way, said he hadn’t heard anything.

“They’re supposed to buy 25, but we haven’t heard what 25,” he said on June 21. “Rumor has it’s just across the street.”

Dietrick said INDOT representatives were in Martinsville on June 18 to assess which flood-damaged homes would be eligible for early acquisition.

“Twenty-eight homes were identified, and coordination has begun on the optional acquisition process,” he wrote. “Inquiries from other homeowners in the Martinsville area, and throughout the I-69 corridor, are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”

The homes, he said, “will be appraised on pre-flood condition.”

The Tokarskis question whether INDOT will pay the homeowners what their properties are worth and see the move as little more than a cynical, public-relations ploy.

“What will INDOT offer to pay for them?” Tom Tokarski asked. “An appraisal is not the same as an offer to buy. Their appraisals tend to be low in regular situations. What will they be here?”

Sandra Tokarski said Daniels will make a few Martinsville voters happy in an election year and send a signal that the I-69 NAFTA Highway is moving forward.

“It’s a public relations coup for him, if he can pull it off,” she said.

***

After 18 years of high crimes and misdemeanors being perpetrated upon Indiana citizens by politicians from both political parties, someone finally went to jail over the I-69 NAFTA Highway.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t anyone from Democrat Frank O’Bannon’s administration for brazenly ignoring the public will while giving millions of taxpayer dollars to an Evansville engineering firm that gave back 10s of thousands in campaign contributions.

Nor was it anyone from the Daniels administration for effectively giving the people’s most valuable assets — its transportation infrastructure and natural resources, for example — to multinational conglomerates and using the short-term profits to confiscate private property, destroy average citizens’ lives and further his own political career.

Nor was it any of their co-conspirators in these abuses of state power and law — the 150 men and women in the State Legislature who are beholden to the highway lobby’s interests, especially the NAFTA Highway’s. Among the most guilty: State Sen. Vi Simpson and former State Rep. turned Mayor Mark Kruzan, both Bloomington Democrats.

On June 20, two weeks to the day after Martinsville became a lake, two activists who occupied a tree-sit protest just off the highway’s path in Gibson County were arrested. At least five more protesters have been arrested in actions in the Evansville and Bloomington areas since police destroyed the tree sit.

The Evansville Courier & Press reported on June 21 that INDOT asked the police to remove the tree-sit protesters from the public land because “groundbreaking on the initial segment of I-69 (is) scheduled for mid-July.”

“Officers used a cherry picker to pluck the pair from the trees early Friday and lowered them to the ground to arrest them on trespassing charges,” the paper reported.

The “criminals” ranged in age from 20 to 25 and came to Southwest Indiana from across the country, signaling that the I-69 NAFTA Highway is a focal point for populist resistance against global corporations and their political enablers who will destroy anything, including citizen property and lives, in pursuit of wealth and power.

The tree sit, which had been manned by a variety of activists since May 19, was just south of State Road 68, where the Daniels administration has destroyed the first four of 400-plus homes and businesses that will be demolished by the I-69 NAFTA Highway.

The Roadblock Earth First! Web site described the protesters’ removal.

“One protester was not attached to a safety line during the eviction but was still hostilely handled by the Conservation Officers. As they reached her with the cherry picker, they pulled her, unattached to anything that would have prevented her tumbling to the ground, putting her life in great danger.

“After evicting the first sitter, officers moved on to the second. They raised the cherry picker below the platform to threaten the sitter and then lifted the platform with the cherry picker. They proceeded to cut the support line that was holding it in the tree. This protester had locked himself onto the ropes using a ‘lock box’ device intended to help him evade eviction. The officers cut that rope, leaving this protester also without any form of safety.”

In addition to the Bloomington march, where another protester was arrested for taking pictures of a police car, the resistance spread to Northwest Indiana, where a “solidarity” march to an INDOT district office was held in Gary.

On June 25, protesters shut down operations at the Gohmann Asphalt & Construction Co. in Princeton, also in Gibson County, after locking themselves to a truck leaving the facility. Gohmann has contracts to work on the I-69 construction.

“Repression only breeds resistance,” the Roadblock EarthFirst! Web site says.

STEVEN HIGGS is the editor of The Bloomington Alternative and a contributor to Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland. He can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com. For more on the Interstate 69 NAFTA Hghway, see the Alternative’s archive of I-69 stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Steven Higgs is an environmental journalist and photographer living in Bloomington, Ind. He owns and operates Natural Bloomington: Ecotours and More. His new book A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana is scheduled for release by Indiana University Press on April 20, 2016.

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