Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 2, 2013

Hoosier Highway from Lafayette to Fort Wayne set to open

JUSTIN L. MACK
Journal & Courier

---- — LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — When the Hoosier Heartland highway is finished this fall, Lafayette resident and Peru native David DeSalvo will need new excuses to avoid trekking back to his parents’ house every weekend for Sunday dinner and “game night.”

After decades of planning and stop-and-start construction, the four-lane divided highway from Lafayette to Fort Wayne is due to be open by Halloween, the Indiana Department of Transportation says.

DeSalvo will have a faster, safer route between Lafayette and his hometown, which he affectionately refers to as “clown town,” owing to Peru’s long ties to the circus world.

“My mom has been following the construction of the (Hoosier Heartland) since I was in high school,” the 29-year-old Purdue University graduate said. “She just calls it ‘that road.’ She is already dropping hints that she’s gonna want me up there as much as possible. She says, ‘You know, when that road is done you can come have a meal every once in a while — you, me and your father.’

“But it’s cool. She’s a great cook.”

Completion of the last leg, from Delphi to Logansport, will cap a project that has been talked about since the mid-1970s and under construction for more than 20 years, said Tom Weatherwax, Hoosier Heartland Association president. The perennially underfunded project received a major boost in 2005 when then-Gov. Mitch Daniels launched Major Moves.

The state plowed money — more than $10 billion since 2005, according to INDOT — from the lease of the Indiana Toll Road into highway projects, including the Hoosier Heartland.

Weatherwax, who as a state senator backed the controversial toll road lease, said it’s still hard to believe that in less than two months he’ll be driving the full length of the highway.

“I relate this to almost like the last spike in the first transcontinental railroad. But I don’t think it took as long to build the transcontinental railroad as it did this highway,” Weatherwax said.

“Many people have worked very hard for well over 35 years to bring this dream to reality. Many of these people and my friends, some of them who aren’t here anymore, never thought they’d live long enough to see this become a reality.”

The Hoosier Heartland runs from Lafayette to Fort Wayne, and from there it connects to a section dubbed the Fort-to-Port corridor — from Fort Wayne to Toledo and Lake Erie. Completion of the Hoosier Heartland and Fort-to-Port highways provides more direct connections, not only between towns and cities but also key transportation facilities, such as Interstates 65 and 69 and the Port of Toledo on Lake Erie.

The most recently completed section of the Hoosier Heartland, from Lafayette to Delphi, opened in October.

“I’ve only been on it few times but it’s great ... real smooth and wide,” DeSalvo said. “It’ll be nice having a straight shot (to Peru) without having to drop speed by like 30 mph in every town you hit on the way.”

While much remains to be done in the Delphi-to-Logansport section, Weatherwax said state officials have set a tentative ribbon-cutting for Oct. 23. The celebration will include a caravan from Logansport’s Ivy Tech Community College campus to the Logansport/Cass County Airport.

“It’s a huge deal because now all of a sudden, we are literally on the map of the big world that we live in,” Weatherwax said. “INDOT is putting these segments on GPS so people from around the world can look at our region here and say, ‘Wow, this state is getting this done.’ That is so important when businesses are looking at relocating and expanding.

“They need access to major, four-lane roads, and that’s why we started this process 35 years ago. In reality, this is what the Hoosier Heartland Corridor Association is focusing on, the economic development.

“We fought to build the road, and the road is nearly done, but now we have to market this thing.”

For Delphi resident Rob Paul, the economic benefits of the highway could not come soon enough. Out of work since February, Paul said the highway will give him quick, safe access to reach parts of the state that are usually a pain to get to.

“I’m not above commuting to and from work at all,” said Paul, who last found full-time work in a Lafayette department store.

“It could be great for a lot of people. In Delphi, we’re kind of close to the middle (of the Hoosier Heartland) so it’s not tough for people here to head in either direction for work.”

Tod Minnich, executive director of the Honeywell Foundation in Wabash, is excited about new faces trickling into Wabash County, courtesy of the Hoosier Heartland.

Minnich said he was educated about the importance of the highway by Jack Porter, a Wabash native and founder of the Hoosier Heartland Industrial Corridor Association. Porter died in 2005.

“I’ve been here 10 and half years, and Jack was one of the first people I met, so I’ve been following it for 10 and a half years,” he said.

“He was one of the earliest supporters of this corridor, so I know he’d be happy to see it completed.”

Minnich said his only opportunity to drive on the road so far was when he traveled to Lafayette for a meeting. His initial impression was positive. He thinks the corridor will be a boon for Wabash and other towns along the route.

“It definitely cuts the time down to get here from all directions west of us,” he said. “We’re obviously always excited when people come to see us the first time, not only at Honeywell, but in Wabash as well.”

INDOT spokesman Matt Deitchley said the original plan was to construct the highway from 2010 to 2016. But the start date was pushed forward to 2008.

Some landscaping and construction work will extend into 2014, but travel won’t be affected, Deitchley said.

“I think it’s exciting for us at INDOT, but it’s more exciting for the people who drive State Road 25 every day,” he said. “I know myself personally, I’ve been on Old 25. It’s a roadway that obviously needed some improvement.”