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Business group seeks to revive Indy bypass plan

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A group of central Indiana manufacturers and warehousing companies wants to revive a plan for a major highway that would go through Johnson County that was first proposed eight years ago.

The Indiana Commerce Connector was unpopular in the counties where the highway would be built, including Johnson County, when proposed by Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2006. The next year, the governor decided to drop the plan. Now a statewide business group made up of manufacturing, warehousing and logistics companies wants to try to bring back the project because it would cut transportation times for their products and reduce traffic congestion around Indianapolis.

As for now, the plan to revive the Indiana Commerce Connector project is just talk. The state has no plans to fund or build another loop outside Interstate 465 at this time, according to the Indiana Department of Transportation.

But logistics group Conexus Indiana and a newly formed central Indiana logistics council both agree that a new outer loop could improve shipping service in the region as well as relieve traffic on I-465, which would benefit commuters, Conexus Indiana vice president David Holt said.

Conexus Indiana researches ideas that would benefit businesses who rely on transporting products and will work to promote the highway concept to statewide organizations, businesses and residents, Holt said. The goal would be to share information about the project and show its benefits, with the hope that business organizations from the state would carry the project to state legislators, who would need to approve and fund the construction, Holt said.

Daniels proposed the connector as a toll road that would start at Interstate 69 near Pendleton northeast of Indianapolis. The road would run through Hancock, Shelby, Johnson and Morgan counties and connect to Interstate 70 southwest of Indianapolis. In Johnson County, the road likely would have run through an area a few miles south of Franklin, cutting through thousands of acres of farmland.

The plan being talked about by Conexus Indiana likely would follow a similar path but extend all the way to Interstate 65 northwest of Indianapolis.

Daniels dropped the idea in spring 2007 after landowners in multiple counties opposed the plan and the $1 billion project struggled to gain support from state lawmakers. The commerce connector was listed among possible future projects when lawmakers approved putting $400 million into savings for large road projects in 2013, but at Gov. Mike Pence’s urging half of that money is now being spent on other road projects.

‘A lot of positive impacts’

The project wasn’t a priority for INDOT in 2013 and isn’t now, spokesman Will Wingfield said. The connector highway remains on a list of possible future projects, but there’s no money set aside for it and no work is being done to plan for or design the highway, he said.

Conexus Indiana wants to start a new push for the project, Holt said. The idea is just a concept now, but if it were built, Holt estimated that amount of road could cost $700 million to $2 billion depending on how it’s constructed.

A commerce connector would help central Indiana businesses by giving trucks another route to get between Indiana’s multiple interstates and avoid areas where traffic bottlenecks at interchanges with I-465. Trucks heading in and out of warehouses and factories located in areas such as Plainfield, Franklin or Fishers would be able to save time by traveling around Indianapolis, Holt said.

Trucks would create less pollution because they wouldn’t be sitting in traffic, and commuters or travelers heading to Indianapolis wouldn’t have to share the road with as many semitrailer rigs, Holt said.

“It would also have an impact of lowering repair costs on those particular interstates and a lot of positive impacts. For a distributor, time is money. You want to be able to move a product faster and efficiently,” Holt said.

The commerce connector was overwhelmingly unpopular among landowners in Johnson County, and that hasn’t changed, said Charles Canary, a former county council member. Canary farms land south of Franklin, which is in an area where the future highway might run.

As both a farmer and a taxpayer, the commerce connector is a bad idea, he said.

‘And I mean that. Destroy’

The state has struggled to find money for the I-69 extension from Evansville to Indianapolis and frequently looks for ways to stretch dollars in order to the maintain the roads that already exist, Canary said. Taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to fund a multibillion-dollar project so that trucks traveling around Indianapolis could shave a few minutes off their drive, if they even use it, he said.

A new multiple-lane highway would take away thousands of acres of farmland and could drastically impact how useful nearby land would be if it causes new drainage problems, he said.

“Why do we have to go out and destroy property? And I mean that. Destroy. They’re going to destroy the property. The land, it will be worth nothing,” Canary said.

Holt is familiar with the commerce connector’s history and the opposition it faced. At the time, the plan came up suddenly and didn’t include many details about the benefits, costs and process of building the highway that businesses, landowners and lawmakers wanted to hear, he said. Conexus Indiana will put together that information so that people can learn as much as possible about the idea before they’re asked to consider spending tax dollars to build it.

Farmers in areas that might be affected have been vocal in opposing the commerce connector since it was first brought up, Holt said. But farmers also have been opposed to other major road projects, including the recent I-69 extension. But those farmers and nearby landowners can get the benefit of that highway, whether it’s to more easily move grain or traveling to other parts of the state more quickly, he said.

“Every single time someone proposes a new road, if you’re a farmer and it’s going through your land, is that something you’re going to support? You already know the answer to that. You always have that initial ‘not in my backyard,’ but once it gets in their backyard, then all of a sudden they will like it,” Holt said.

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