Mid-States Corridor RDA discusses public communication issues

Residents attending the Mid-States Corridor Regional Development Authority (RDA) meeting last Friday voiced frustrations over the perceived lack of communication from the contractor charged with determining the path forward on the Mid-States Corridor.

The corridor is a proposed improved highway through Dubois County designed to connect the improved U.S. 231 in Spencer County to Interstate 69.

The Mid-States Corridor RDA is overseeing the phased study being conducted by the Indiana Department of Transportation through their contractor, Lochmueller Group. This RDA was the first to be formed under a law authored in 2017 by Senator Mark Messmer and sponsored by then-State Representative Mike Braun that allowed the formation of these authorities to oversee and seek funding for large infrastructure projects.

Currently led by Mark Schroeder, the RDA’s five members include Sue Ellspermann, Ken Mulzer Jr., Scott Blazey, and David Drake. Each member of the group was appointed and approved by elected county and city officials in Dubois and Spencer counties.

After completing its regular business, the RDA opened up the floor for comments from about 20 residents in attendance.

While some spoke against the road being built, the majority of the questions centered around communication between the public and the Lochmueller Group. According to the RDA counsel Bill Kaiser, through the contract with INDOT, Lochmueller is responsible for community outreach during the study.

While the office located on the VUJ campus was closed for much of 2020 due to the pandemic and the Tier I study was stalled, the office has now reopened and Lochmueller expects to provide the draft environmental impact study this fall with a preferred corridor chosen.

During the RDA meeting, Sheila Wendholt, a member of the Stop the Mid-States Corridor grassroots group, mentioned she was unable to retrieve a petition with more than 400 signatures that had been mistakenly dropped off at the VUJ office operated by Lochmueller.

According to Mindy Peterson, Lochmueller Group’s spokesperson on the project, the petition has been added to the study and is now considered a public record. “As part of the public record, the request for those items becomes more formalized and goes through INDOT and its public records program coordinator,” she wrote in an email response.

She added that anyone can request those public records through INDOT’s public information request page found here.

Residents have also asked for results from the Screening Report Questionnaire that was made available for the public to comment about the proposed routes early in 2020. Specifically, opponents to the corridor want to know how many respondents to the survey wrote in they were against any improved highway being built through Dubois County.

According to Peterson, the Screening Report Questionnaire from February 2019 was designed to gather information to support the environmental study that is analyzing benefits, impacts and costs of alternatives (like what man-made or natural features should be considered).

“The intent was never to gauge support or opposition to the project, and we’re not sharing information that would suggest that,” she explained adding that the project team has reviewed and considered all responses.

Some in attendance asked when Lochmueller would begin to allow more public input into the process or host public sessions regarding the Tier I study.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) is expected to be published this fall and will identify a preferred corridor, Peterson wrote. “The DEIS will be followed by a set of public hearings. Hearings will comply with health guidelines in place at the time and include a virtual component. Comments will also be accepted in person, online or by mail during a formal comment period of at least 30 days. All comments received will be addressed by the Project Team and addressed in the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Kaiser told those in attendance at Friday’s meeting that the RDA would address communication issues and bring these concerns up to ensure Lochmueller is meeting its contractual obligations.

There was also some discussion about private donors to the project. The Tier I study was funded through public money as well as private donors. A list of private donors to the project has been provided but according to Indiana law, donors to a public entity have the right to remain private. As such, a shortened list of donors willing to be identified as donors to the Tier I study was provided to those who made a public records request.

Kaiser explained that when the request for the donors was made, each donor was informed they have the right to disclose or not disclose their identity. The public record provided only listed those who allowed the disclosure which includes Jasper Engines and Transmissions, Radius Indiana, Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center, Ackerman Oil, Inc., Cook Group, Spencer Industries, Inc., Universal Technologies, Blackbird Manufacturing, Unique Granite and Marble, and Olon Industries, Inc.

Also during the RDA meeting:

-Approved disbursements and claims for the Tier I study. The RDA approved $780,000 to be paid to INDOT to be used for upcoming expenses on the study.

-Heard the RDA website is still being built. It will include documents regarding the RDA formation as well as minutes and information about RDA meetings.