Highway to Hell 

A Descent into Daniels' Inferno

Laura McPhee In the w

A Descent into Daniels' Inferno

Laura McPhee In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “Hell is other people.” Not a bad assessment of reality and certainly not a bad assessment of politics. But for the best possible literary analogy between Hell and political corruption, there is only one master: Dante and his Inferno. Written as an indictment against the political shenanigans and malfeasance sweeping his beloved Florence during the earliest part of the 14th century, Dante’s description of man’s descent into the nine levels of Hell as metaphor for political corruption has lost none of its relevance or punch. In the case of Indiana’s long and winding road to Hell and back with the I-69 NAFTA Highway, Dante’s nine levels of Hell aptly describe the various stages of history for the controversial I-69 interstate, particularly since Gov. Mitch Daniels announced his plans to expedite construction of the much-delayed highway by privatizing it and making it a toll road. Oh sure, it’s not a direct correlation. You have to replace names like Julius Caesar, Richard the Lionhearted, Ulysses and Aristotle in Dante’s version with names like Mitch Daniels, John Hostettler, Tom Delay and Richard Lugar in the I-69 version — but trust me, the classic themes of greed, power, fraud and damnation have withstood the test of time. LEVEL 1: Trapped in Limbo The first level of Dante’s Hell and the point of origin for the current I-69 debate are both found in a place called Limbo. For the great writer, Limbo is a place where the enlightened lament their inability to affect change. Not all together an unfavorable lot, beneficial for their wisdom and public speaking capabilities, Limbo is where the most brilliant minds spend an eternity discussing a future that never materializes as punishment for their sins. In an uncanny coincidence, Limbo is the exact place Mitch Daniels found the I-69 NAFTA Highway plans when he took office, and not for dissimilar reasons. Less than a year into his first term, however, Daniels announced his “Major Moves” initiative to move the I-69 NAFTA Highway from Limbo to reality, including the construction of a “new terrain” I-69 extension from Indianapolis to Evansville. “We will pick up the project wherever we find it and push it ahead, looking along the way for any option that will speed things up,” Daniels has promised since his campaign. “Years of economic neglect and inactivity by the [previous] administration are typified by its total failure to deliver on I-69.” The new governor isn’t simply accelerating the construction of I-69 with “Major Moves”; he is seeking to make it a toll road as well, and looking to find a private company to build and operate the new I-69 toll road. Daniels says the public-private partnership is simply the only way to get the NAFTA Highway built in Indiana. “There has never been a funding source identified for I-69 until ‘Major Moves,’” Daniels has been quick to remind opponents to his plan. He is adamant that “Major Moves” will move I-69 from the drawing board to reality, and that “a public-private partner will slash the state money needed to build I-69.” But a joint poll conducted by WTHR and The Indianapolis Star and released this month finds that the majority of Indiana residents don’t support Daniels’ “Major Moves” initiative. While the poll did not ask specifically about the I-69 extension, or plans to make it a new state toll road, 60 percent of those polled “think the governor’s proposal to lease out the Indiana Toll Road for 75 years in return for $3.85 billion is a bad idea.” The governor is not swayed by lack of public support. As he told The Star in response to negative public opinion about “Major Moves,” “Doing the right thing may have to be its own reward. I’d be a lot more concerned about going weak in the knees and breaking faith with what we said we’d do than about anybody’s poll.” LEVEL 2: All aboard the NAFTA Highway As Dante leaves Limbo and continues his descent into the underworld, he notices a sign just above the gate to the next level of Hell. “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” it warns those brave enough to proceed: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” It’s not a bad warning to those wondering just how Mitch Daniels became so committed to moving the I-69 NAFTA Highway out of Limbo and into reality. The idea of a NAFTA Highway has accompanied every stage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and America’s most powerful business interests quickly began forming their own coalition to push for a faster, cheaper way to transport products between the new free trade zones. The 2,600-mile I-69 highway is considered by its supporters to be a much-needed transportation route from north to south, much as I-70 is from east to west. Nearly 50 percent of all trade between America and its neighbors Mexico and Canada is done by trucks entering and exiting ports and border crossings along the proposed I-69 route. Seasoned veterans of the Washington political system, large corporations came together in 1991 and formed a lobbying organization that has been called “the single most ambitious, joint lobbying effort ever supported by economic development groups across the country.” Executive Director James Newland (see “Level 4: Infiltrating Indiana” for more on Newland) describes the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition (MCHC) as “current and future users of the I-69 corridor … in the agriculture, mining, timber, energy, transportation, chemical, electronic and industrial sectors.” Board members, representatives and “alliance members” of the MCHC range from representatives of the local Chamber of Commerce to trucking magnates and oil tycoons, all of whom believe a single interstate system from north to south would be an “unprecedented boon to American business interests.” The MCHC often boasts of its successful lobbying campaign that led to the passage of the 1995 National Highway System bill. With its passage, Congress approved millions of dollars for the first feasibility studies of I-69 based upon “first-of-its-kind analysis of the transportation, economic development, poverty relief and international trade implications of the new interstate, from Mexico through the U.S. to Canada.” This study was presented to Congress by I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition. LEVEL 3: The VIP section With each passage to the next level of Hell, Dante presents characters/sinners receiving their just punishment. Most of the individual levels between Limbo and the final, most horrifying, level of Hell are devoted to those guilty of the Seven Deadly Sins. In his continuing journey downward, Dante encounters those guilty of gluttony, greed, lust and wrath, among many other things. Just to make sure his readers didn’t take his meaning too figuratively, the writer went to the trouble of naming names, and the Inferno is one of the most complete records of 14th century Italy’s most famous and infamous politicians. The same is true for the history of I-69. Not long after its formation, MCHC lobbyists traveled to Washington, D.C., and very quickly garnered the support of two influential U.S. congressmen: Reps. Tom Delay of Texas and John Hostettler of Indiana, both Republicans, and both elected representatives of the two states with the most vested interests in I-69. When completed, the majority of I-69’s actual pavement will be in Texas and the majority of actual cost will have been spent in Indiana. Delay and Hostettler were the co-chairs of the I-69 Congressional Caucus in the mid-1990s, a group whose admitted purpose was to rally support for the funding of I-69. It helped that Delay was also co-chair of the House committee that oversees the allocation of the federal transportation budget. Hostettler’s first public support of the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition came in 1997 as the keynote speaker for the lobbying group’s annual Washington, D.C., breakfast. “The completion of a mid-continent interstate highway that will link the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico is a critically needed lifeline to support the central United States,” Hostettler told the lobbyists. “Completion of this highway will lead our country into a prosperous 21st century.” While his speech, and most of the MCHC talking points, discussed economic advantages such as the creation of jobs (4,415), generation of new wages (approximately $1 billion) and increased sales output ($12 billion), Hostettler also focused on what he considered the most important advantage of the NAFTA Highway: saving lives. “The numbers are astounding,” according to Hostettler. “The total number of collisions in Indiana would be reduced by 9,500 over a 30 year period [116 fewer collisions per year]. The number of deaths would decline by about 60 [two fewer deaths per year].” In another public speech entitled “Highway Would Be a Boon for Business,” Hostettler is even more specific. “Some have asked me if this highway will be cost efficient. I believe it will pay for itself and provide a surplus. The first place to look is at the tax dollars saved by the most important benefit of I-69: saving lives,” the congressman said. “For example,” he explains, “the average worker in the United States earned about $25,000 in 1993. Assuming that each person whose death is avoided by building the highway would work for 30 years beyond that person’s death, this translates to about $150 million added to the economy of my state, Indiana, alone.” Since 1998, many of the largest contributors to Hostettler’s campaigns have also been the most active lobbyists for I-69 in Indiana. Approximately 10 of his 20 most generous donors also appear on MCHC lists of “Pro-I-69 Businesses” or MCHC Alliance members. At the top of the list of crossovers is Hostettler’s former employer Southern Indiana Energy (SEIGO), which has steadily been one of Hostettler’s biggest donors and one of I-69’s biggest supporters. Contractors and companies that stand to gain valuable contracts with INDOT, should I-69 be built, such as George Koch and Sons, Moore Engineering, Koester Companies and North American Green, have also thrown their support behind Hostettler with tens of thousands of dollars in contributions in each of the past four election cycles. LEVEL 4: Infiltrating Indiana Since its inception in 1991, the nation’s most powerful pro-I-69 lobbying effort, the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition, has been headquartered in Indianapolis, Ind. Also since its inception, longtime Indiana lobbyist James Newland has been the MCHC executive director. In addition to his experience as a publicist and lobbyist, Newland has also offered MCHC unique family connections. His son, Mark Newland, is program director at the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT). His daughter-in-law, Joyce Newland, is a transportation planner for the Federal Highway Administration office in Indiana. From 1996-2001, the lobbying group received nearly $100,000 in grants (taxpayer money) from the Indiana Department of Commerce to study the “I-69 Initiative.” In exchange for the money, the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition was to submit a quarterly progress report on its “findings” concerning I-69. According to the Associated Press, Newland submitted an environmental study performed by an architectural and engineering firm hired by MCHC, a copy of a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Transportation and a copy of a speech given to the coalition board of directors by its congressional consultant, John Hostettler. From 2000–2003, MCHC received $20,000 a year from a contract with the City of Indianapolis. The agreement required Newland to provide the city with “information about the alignment of I-69 points of contact within Marion County,” as well as attend public hearings and meet with city staff as requested. Over a three-year period, Newland collected $60,000. In return, the City of Indianapolis received copies of the MCHC newsletter; newspaper clippings with letters to the editors of various newspapers in support of I-69; and copies of two federal studies concerning the NAFTA Highway. There is a record of only one staff meeting between MCHC representatives over three years, and no indication that MCHC representatives held or attended any public hearings concerning I-69 in Marion County. Mid-Continent Highway Alliance Executive Director James Newland was also one of Gov. O’Bannon’s appointees to the Indiana Transportation Finance Authority Board. Though he made several generous contributions to the campaign of Mitch Daniels, Newland has not retained his positions in state government under the new administration, and the phone number for the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition offices in Indianapolis is no longer valid. His children, however, continue to work for the state and federal governments on I-69 related projects. LEVEL 5: Deep in the heart of Texas While the MCHC focused much of its efforts and attention on Indiana, the great state of Texas was being wooed just as forcefully and just as creatively by lobbyists for I-69. Texas is home to a charter branch of the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition called the Alliance for I-69 Texas. According to the group’s Web site, they were responsible for successfully lobbying for over $100 million in taxpayer funds at the state and local level for I-69. The group also credits Rep. Tom Delay with much of the success in pushing the NAFTA Highway forward. The second-ranking Republican on a House subcommittee for appropriations crucial for highway spending, DeLay has always been effective in bringing federal transportation dollars to the Houston area, and the proposed NAFTA Highway runs straight through his hometown of Sugarland. While it is no farther along the road to completion there than it is in Indiana, Delay takes credit for garnering millions in federal tax dollars for I-69 in his home state. Just last summer, Delay’s office released a press release praising his accomplishments regarding the NAFTA Highway. According to the document, “Congressman DeLay led the I-69 Texas congressional delegation in obtaining $50 million for I-69. TXDOT will use this funding to help complete the environment and location studies of I-69 in Texas and proceed to right-of-way acquisition and construction. This vital national trade corridor running through the greater Houston area is critical to the continued development of both the region’s and nation’s economy.” LEVEL 6: Bumps and bruises Delay hasn’t only found a way to make the NAFTA Highway an economic benefit for his home state, however. According to a variety of published reports, the partnership between DeLay and the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition came about when a group of lobbyists first visited the Texas congressman in 1995. The subject quickly turned to the finely-tuned lobbying efforts that would be needed to get the massive federal funding needed to move the highway project forward. Upon the congressman’s recommendation, the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition hired Randy Delay, the congressman’s brother, as their primary paid lobbyist for the state of Texas. In little more than one year, Randy DeLay went from being a bankrupt Houston lawyer to a lobbyist for the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition making $550,000. Rep. Tom DeLay admits that he has worked with his brother on the I-69 project, but scoffs at accusations that this might constitute a conflict of interest. According to Rep. Delay, his brother hasn’t been treated “any differently” from other lobbyists. Ethics complaints were filed in the U.S. House of Representatives regarding the potential conflict, but no violations were found to have occurred. This may not be the case in a more recent accusation of lobbying malfeasance associated with Tom Delay. The Texas congressman is currently under indictment for allegedly routing campaign contributions from Texas lobbying interests illegally between several 527/Political Action Committees (PACs) he maintains. In a similar case, Rep. Delay’s former spokesperson Michael Scanlon is also under investigation for allegedly routing illegal lobbying funds through the Republican Governors Association. The Republican Governors Association (RGA) is the largest PAC associated with the Republican Party. Amended reports for 2002 showed $500,000 in reported contributions from Scanlon, who was working with Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff on behalf of Indian tribes at the time the unreported contributions were made. Abramoff was recently indicted on charges of conspiracy and wire fraud, and Scanlon and Abramoff are under investigation for fraud in connection with their lobbying for the tribes. LEVEL 7: An alternate route Though his own opposition to the I-69 NAFTA Highway lasted only as long as there were plans to route it through his family’s farm, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar gave his constituents who also oppose I-69 a mantra to continue opposing the interests of politicians and corporations. “All Hoosiers may wish to discuss the priority of such expenditures and the probability of potential public and private economic gains at a time of extraordinary national security, health care, social security and education needs in Indiana and throughout the country,” Lugar wrote regarding the cost of the NAFTA Highway to Indiana taxpayers in 2003. But taxpayers weren’t the only ones questioning traditional funding methods for the NAFTA Highway in recent years. Despite all the help from friends in high places, proponents of the NAFTA Highway continued to see public resistance to the project and unwillingness on the part of residents and local lawmakers to pay for the project with tax dollars. The road was simply not being built. In late 2003, the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition announced a new funding strategy for I-69 to coincide with the final congressional approval of the I-69 Corridor. According to the “2004 Action Plan,” members of the MCHC and supporters of I-69 must “redouble efforts to expand private sector investment and membership.” Lobbying efforts for I-69 were no longer focused on the allocation of tax money from federal and state budgets. Instead, the MCHC began pushing for the privatization of I-69. And, just to ensure a good return on their investments, the privatization plans are based on the construction of toll roads. In 2005, the Multi-Continental Highway Coalition worked “in concert with TXDOT to successfully defeat an amendment that would have precluded the use of toll financing to develop I-69” in Texas. A few months later, current Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced his transportation initiative to move the I-69 NAFTA Highway in Texas from drawing board to reality “using tools of the private marketplace to advance the project” (aka, a plan to lease I-69 in Texas, use the lease money to build it and turn it into a toll road). The same large financial backers of the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition also began spending their campaign contribution funds in a more targeted manner. During the 2004 election, the Republican Governors Association, with the help of I-69 supporters, used all its resources to elect candidates favorable to the new plan to privatize I-69 in an effort to speed up its construction. LEVEL 8: The Trojan horse The No. 1 contributor to the campaign to elect Mitch Daniels as governor of Indiana in 2004 was the Republican Governors Association. The Washington-based PAC contributed more than $2 million, more than 10 percent of his total contributions. Eleven months after taking office, Daniels announced plans to move the Indiana portion of I-69 from drawing board to reality with “Major Moves,” using the tools of the private market place to advance the project (aka, a plan to lease I-69 in Indiana, use the lease money to build it and turn it into a toll road). This was the exact same plan as the one announced that same month by the governor of Texas. It was the same plan designed by the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition. In the weeks leading up to legislative approval of “Major Moves,” even more connections between Gov. Daniels, campaign contributors and the future of I-69 have been made public. Dan Dumezick, a former Indiana state representative turned lobbyist, has made a name for himself as a top fund-raiser for Indiana Republicans, including Daniels during his recent campaign. Dumezick is also a partner at one of Chicago’s largest and most powerful law firms, Mayer, Brown, Rowe, and Maw — a law firm that made sizable contributions to the My Man Mitch gubernatorial campaign. Mayer-Brown is also the same law firm that handled the 2004 privatization deal of the Chicago Skyway for Mayor Richard M. Daley. Three days before Daniels announced his “Major Moves” initiative, Mayer Brown, Rowe, and Maw submitted a bill to the State of Indiana for its consulting work on the governor’s plan to privatize I-69 totaling nearly $200,000. And just last week, the Associated Press reported that engineering, construction and other groups standing to gain from the “Major Moves” legislation have contributed more than $300,000 for a last-minute television ad campaign aimed at helping improve public opinion towards the governor and his plans for Indiana roads while members of the Indiana General Assembly ponder their yea and nay votes about its future. LEVEL 9: Belly of the beast It’s still unclear where the road to hell and back will end for the I-69 NAFTA Highway. As one of its final items of duty for this legislative session, the Indiana General Assembly voted to give Gov. Daniels a generic “yes” to his “Major Moves” initiative. At press time, the governor and legislators had agreed to wait until next year to decide the exact route of the I-69 extension on the Southside of Indianapolis, leaving the question of whether it will pass through Perry or Decatur Township until after the November election. They will also wait until next year to decide if I-69 will be a toll road from Indianapolis to Martinsville once completed. But the big questions have been answered, and the decade-long wait is over. The I-69 NAFTA Highway will be built in Indiana, including the “new terrain” extension from Indianapolis to Evansville. Conservatively, Indiana could forfeit $10 billion in public money that would otherwise go in the state budget in exchange for “Major Moves.” That is approximately the cost of the entire NAFTA Highway project from Mexico to Canada, and five times the amount needed to build the I-69 extension from Indianapolis to Evansville. To say nothing of the destruction of 5,500 acres of farmland and forests, the Patoka National Wetlands and Wildlife Refuge and God knows how many endangered species. At least in Dante’s version, the worst level of hell is reserved for the worst offenders.
The road to Hell: an I-69 primer When completed, the I-69 NAFTA Highway will connect the Mexican border at Laredo, Texas, with the Canadian border at Point Huron, Mich., as it passes through Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. The estimated cost for the highway project from Mexico to Canada is $10 billion. The cost to build the roughly 150 new miles of I-69 from Indianapolis to Evansville is approximately $2 billion — less than 1 percent of the total pavement; more than 20 percent of the total cost. The two previous Indiana governors (both Democrats) spent a total of 13 years and nearly $30 million in state taxpayer funds promoting the new-terrain I-69. In that same time period, 94 percent of citizens who submitted public comments to state leaders about the extension of I-69 did so to express opposition. In 1998, NBC Nightly News called the new terrain I-69 highway from Indianapolis to Evansville “a fleecing that would take you and your tax dollars for a billion-dollar ride” as part of its “Fleecing of America” series. During the segment, Tom Brokaw noted that $34 million in federal tax dollars had already been spent “on a road where not one teacup of concrete had been poured.” That was eight years ago. Conservatively, Indiana has now spent a minimum of $75 million in taxpayer dollars for a road that does not yet exist. In 2004, Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense included the I-69 extension from Indianapolis to Evansville in its “Road to Ruin: The 27 Most Wasteful Road Projects in America” report. At No. 8 on the list, the group claims “upgrading existing highways would cost nearly $1 billion less than the estimated $1.9 billion price tag to build a new I-69, and would save the 140 miles of Indiana farmland that the new highway would destroy.” The stalemate between taxpayers and I-69 supporters has lasted for nearly a decade, especially at the state level where elected representatives to the Indiana General Assembly have refused to approve a tax increase to pay for Indiana’s share of the NAFTA Highway. After prominent Republican Sen. Larry Borst released a study in 2003 showing a 5 cent gas tax increase was the only way to pay for I-69 in Indiana, the project seemed doomed to remain in Limbo. “I don’t think we need to get to the deep, philosophical question of whether or not I-69 is a good thing or a bad thing,” Rep. Matt Pierce (D) of Bloomington said in 2004, “because I don’t think you can get past the funding problems.” At the same press appearance, just before she was tapped to be lieutenant governor under Mitch Daniels, then-Sen. Becky Skillman (R) expressed the funding reality and political quagmire of the NAFTA Highway in Indiana. “Can you imagine within a legislative body of 150 members, who are representing their own areas, supporting a 5 cent increase to go toward one project in the state?” As long as state lawmakers had to approve a tax increase to pay for the I-69 NAFTA Highway in Indiana, and depend on those same taxpayers for their re-election, the standoff over funding the project continued. That is, until Mitch Daniels arrived in Indiana.

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