Think of a moment in history that changed Terre Haute most.
Maybe the devastating Easter weekend tornado and flood in 1913 that killed 21 people. Perhaps, the progressive era of Mayor Ora Davis in the 1920s, when the city opened its iconic parks like Deming and classic structures like the Indiana Theatre. Or, the debut of Hulman Center in 1973, leading to more than 100 concerts and Larry Bird’s basketball exploits before that decade ended. Then there’s 2005, when the long deteriorating Terre Haute House was razed and new hotels and a children’s museum emerged.
A legitimate argument can be made for each event. The town felt the effects long after those days passed.
Yet, none altered local commerce, culture, transportation, locations of residences and businesses and public facilities, tourism, travel and migration more so than 11 a.m. Aug. 31, 1967.
That’s when Interstate 70 opened to traffic through Vigo County on an 11.33-mile stretch from the U.S. 40 exit near the Illinois state line to Indiana 46. The change was instant, dramatic and unending. Once the construction barricades came down on I-70, the east-west traffic along U.S. 40 (the “National Road”) dwindled to a trickle, especially along Wabash Avenue and Poplar Street (the truck route for U.S. 40) through downtown.
Then-mayor Ralph Tucker noticed immediately. After 20 years as mayor, Tucker said he didn’t have to shut his office windows to hear above the traffic noise. And, “for the first time in a quarter-century, it was quiet Thursday night in the Poplar Street residential area,” Tucker told the Terre Haute Tribune.
Parking space opened up and air pollution dropped, the mayor added. He hailed I-70’s benefits.
Of course, there was a flip side to the birth of I-70, which marks its 50th anniversary Thursday. The diversion of cross-country travelers from Terre Haute’s main street, Wabash Avenue, to the new I-70 three miles south in 1967 extracted 100 trucks and 500 cars per hour, as estimated by the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department then, from the downtown district.
The fabled 1967 “Summer of Love” became the “Summer of Loss” for downtown Terre Haute, as the retail stores steadily moved south or simply closed.
The traditional “Crossroads of America” at the intersection of U.S. 40 (Wabash) and old U.S. 41 (Seventh Street) relocated to the crossing of I-70 and U.S. 41. By 1968, Honey Creek Square opened, and Terre Haute’s new commercial hub grew up around it. Three years later, a new consolidated high school, Terre Haute South Vigo, opened nearby on Davis Avenue. By the end of the ‘70s, Terre Haute Regional Hospital was treating patients south of the high school. A once rural area became bustling.
Today, that sector is a sea of stores, restaurants, hotels and professional offices. An average of 38,655 vehicles a day travel on I-70 at its intersection with U.S. 41, according to West Central Indiana Economic Development District figures. The concentration of economic activity and transportation access can attract more business throughout the town and region.
Meanwhile, downtown Terre Haute endured decades of stagnation before a gradual revival began in the 21st century, and continues.
Ironically, it’s now the interstate that’s desperately in need of change. As a major trucking route, the wear on I-70 has led to almost constant repairs and construction projects between the Illinois border and Plainfield. That stretch of interstate has seen more than 500 crashes during each of the past two years, including several tragic, multi-vehicle collisions that claimed lives.
Interstate 70 was built in stages, coast-to-coast, from 1956 to 1976. Construction of the 11.33-mile piece from the Illinois line to Indiana 46 lasted from 1963 to ‘67, and two segments on each end going to Marshall, Illinois, and Putnam County were finished in 1969. Five options were considered for the Terre Haute sector, including one that would’ve taken north of U.S. 40 with five exits. The eventual choice was less expensive and intrusive to urban structures.
All of the scenarios included four lanes, and that’s how I-70 was made. Today, it needs to be expanded to six lanes, or even eight.
One of the Indiana Department of Transportation’s original I-70 project engineers told me in a 2007 interview that the interstate “is way over capacity now.” The engineer, Bruce Conrad, said a decade ago, “It needs the extra lanes to handle the service it gets. I think it was adequate when it was built, but it wasn’t updated with the times. It’s overcrowded now.”
The addition of trucks-only lanes on I-70, funded through tolls, was considered from 2007 to 2009. The Federal Highway Administration designated an 800-mile segment of I-70 from Missouri to Illinois, Indiana and Ohio as one of its “Corridors of the Future.” The Designated Truck Lanes federal feasibility study, backed by former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, weighed a gamut of factors involved in creating those extra lanes, including cost, access points and management of truck traffic in urban areas, according to Debbie Calder, INDOT director of communications.
The trucks-only lanes, which would’ve been a first nationally, were not implemented.
Indiana’s new governor, Eric Holcomb, resurrected the issue of expanding I-70, alongside other transportation upgrades, in his initial address to Hoosiers in January. The major road funding bill passed by the Indiana General Assembly this spring gives the state “a toolkit of options” to “explore funding and constructing these major projects,” Calder told the Tribune-Star last week.
“INDOT is in the very early stages of evaluating options for widening I-70,” Calder added, “so it is too early to know the timeline or cost to upgrade the roadway.”
The half-century-old interstate’s problems appear to be affecting the number of travelers using it, at least in its Terre Haute miles. While the average daily vehicle count on I-70 at U.S. 41 is 38,655, that figure represents a multi-year period. The average daily traffic at the site for this year is 30,870, a decrease of 11 percent, the West Central Indiana Economic Development District figures show. The lower traffic could be caused by travelers taking alternate routes to avoid construction or slowed traffic.
While concerns about the local I-70 stretch loom large here, Indiana’s other interstates require similar levels of improvements, said Jeremy Weir, the economic district’s director of transportation planning. “All those main existing corridors we have in our interstate system are in need of upgrades,” he said.
Current residents who stumble across old photographs of the local I-70 construction might see houses being moved from the prospective freeway’s path to other sites around the city, and farm fields and woods along Indiana 46, where the interstate, big box stores, strip malls, convenience stores and logistics centers now stand. Two or four more I-70 lanes would vastly alter that landscape again.
And Terre Haute might change, again.