By Nate Smith
Washington Times Herald
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 chuckled.
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 omelettes 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 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.
If it was not 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 Corporation. He and Graham knew then, in 1990, that if Daviess County was going 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 every 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 wasn’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 an consortium for $3.85 billion. The deal, called Major Moves, has funded road construction statewide 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.”
Dellinger agreed that without Daniels this part of the interstate would not be here, but there’s more for to the Daniels legacy than just building the road.
“For actually making it happen, it deserves a great deal of credit,” Dellinger said. “I would also add the fact he was able to act puts a lot of responsibility on Gov. Daniels.
“It will be interesting to see how the economy develops. Now is the true test of Gov. Daniels and all the politicians to deliver the jobs.”
Those words were echoed by many of the leaders of the I-69 movement, but they were positive on the outlook for Daviess County and Washington.
“We’ve had a series of mayors that have been very thoughtful and very aware of the situation,” Graham said. “I’ve talked to all of them many times and they understand the importance of the infrastructure and the planning that goes into it. I think the planning our mayors have done have been great and others have as well.”
Arthur and Cox believe the work done already at the WestGate @ Crane Tech Park will serve as a good model for further development.
“As you continue to see WestGate grow, you will see the excitement continue,” Cox said.
Excitement and tests aside, Monday’s cutting would not have happened without the work of Graham. But Graham did not want to take much of the credit for I-69. He believed Cox and Newland did as much for the interstate as he did.
“There’s no one person that did it. That’s absurd,” Graham said. “It took all of us working together.”
Graham believe that Cox, who has been instrumental in bringing companies here before retiring, deserves much of the credit.
“You never see what David Cox does, but he is a major force in what happens in our county,” Graham said. “He never gets any credit for it. It’s too bad.”
Some others see it differently, giving due praise to Graham’s work.
“David had a vision and the tenacity to go after it,” Arthur said. “He knew the channels and worked to develop the idea.”
Dellinger and Cox agreed.
“It’s safe to say there would be no I-69 without David Graham,” Dellinger said. “He is almost single handedly responsible.
“If you think about what he did, there’s a lot of plans on paper. There’s a lot of ideas. It takes someone to drum up the interest and build a coalition. That is what he initiated.”
Many of the key figures in I-69 will be there Monday, cutting the ribbon on a road that many believe will bring promise to Daviess County. Graham will have one of his grandchildren take him on the first drive on the Interstate.
One figure that will be missed is Newland, who died on May 19. Newland served as the head of the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition, who advocated for I-69 not only in Indiana, but for states all the way down the corridor.
Two years before, he was at one of the ground breakings for construction at the Daviess County Airport, sitting in the front row. After the ceremony, engineers, designers and local leaders came up to him, shaking his hand and thanking him for the work he did to get the state to that hot July day.
“It has taken 40 years and seven governors to get to this day,” Newland said at the time.
He also joked that “hope springs eternal.”
Newland’s son, Mark, will be making remarks on behalf of his father on Monday at Antioch Christian Church as part of a luncheon thanking I-69 construction workers.
Graham, along with Daniels, will also be speaking. Arthur and Cox, along with Reed, will also be at the ribbon cutting ceremonies.
Dellinger, who won’t be able to attend, will be waiting to see what happens while he adds to his book for future editions if I-69 was a success in southern Indiana.
“Now those promises of jobs are going to be put to the test,” Dellinger said.