Build it and they will come: Gov. Eric Holcomb expects Terre Haute to see more benefits from an increase in visitors arriving on I-70 and U.S. 41 and to see near-future improvements to the structure of the interstate itself from Vigo County on the western border to Wayne County on the state’s eastern edge. Tribune-Star file/Joseph C. Garza
Build it and they will come: Gov. Eric Holcomb expects Terre Haute to see more benefits from an increase in visitors arriving on I-70 and U.S. 41 and to see near-future improvements to the structure of the interstate itself from Vigo County on the western border to Wayne County on the state’s eastern edge. Tribune-Star file/Joseph C. Garza
So much of Terre Haute’s future hinges on two stretches of pavement. The community is about to find out their true value.

An average of 27,779 vehicles are passing through Vigo County every day on Interstate 70 this year, and another 36,338 on U.S. 41, Indiana Department of Transportation statistics say. Both are up from pandemic-driven lows in 2020, but also well above pre-pandemic 2019. The intersection of those two highways has bustled ever since the local stretch of I-70 opened in 1967. But expectations have never been higher for those motorists to stay longer than a pitstop for gas and food.

Why?

A new downtown convention center opens in April. Churchill Downs’ Queen of Terre Haute Casino and Resort is expected to open by 2023, either by the Haute City Center mall or the I-70 exit at Indiana 46. On Tuesday, the Wabash River Regional Development Authority — a local coalition of six west-central Indiana counties — finds out whether the state will award it a $50-million grant to help fund the group’s proposal to develop 42 quality-of-life projects in and around Vigo County.

Local officials say the casino and convention center, alone, should attract 1.5 million new visitors to Terre Haute.

The projects included in the grant proposal — ranging from an eastside aquatic center to an essential-worker village, a Rea Park health complex, hotels and apartments in Terre Haute and Sullivan, and more — could eventually draw more visitors, new businesses and new residents. Many could arrive on a six-lane I-70, widened thanks to an infusion of additional federal funds to Indiana through the $1.2-trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Terre Haute’s location and accessibility are frequently cited as reasons for those planned amenities.

Thus, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb anticipates growth in the Terre Haute region — an area whose population has flatlined since the early 2000s and is projected to decline through 2050. He expects Terre Haute to see more benefits from an increase in visitors arriving on I-70 and U.S. 41, and to see near-future improvements to the structure of the interstate itself from Vigo County on the western border to Wayne County on the state’s eastern edge.

“This is a huge [level of traffic],” Holcomb said in a Tribune-Star interview Monday. “The number of vehicles that pass through both Vigo and Wayne counties, and every point in between, is a huge asset to our state. Meaning that the through-traffic, if we can get them to stop here and shop here and stay here and see here and spend dollars here, maybe they’ll stay.”

The motivations to visit or stay are many, Holcomb believes.

Terre Haute’s new casino may epitomize Indiana officials’ long-held contention that the Hoosier state has more to offer new employers and prospective residents than surrounding states, especially Illinois. Holcomb’s two Republican predecessors frequently targeted Illinois — a state with severe fiscal problems and, most importantly, a Democratic-dominated state legislature — with campaigns to lure Land of Lincoln businesses and industries to relocate in Indiana. Likewise, Holcomb has no reservations about the ability of Indiana’s gaming industry to combat a comprehensive gambling expansion by Illinois. Under Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Illinois awarded licenses for six new casinos, including Danville, just an hour drive from Terre Haute.

Holcomb broke into a bearded grin when asked about the border-state challenge.

“Oh, we’ll take on Illinois strategically and tactically any day of the week,” he said. “And that’s a challenge I’m sure they’d accept, as well. But we feel like the grass is greener on this side of the border. And we’re proving it every single day, whether you’re in Lake County or Vigo County or Evansville, for that matter. I just go up and down [U.S.] 41 and [see] the growth that’s occurring on our side of the border.”

He cited Indiana’s stronger population growth (0.46% during the past decade, versus Illinois’ 0.01% decline), and the Hoosier state’s more favorable land prices, economic sectors for life sciences, ag-bio science, technology, manufacturing, hospitality and gaming. Still, competition in the gambling industry from Illinois, as well as other neighbors, is coming, Holcomb acknowledged.

“I think we have to be prepared for the inevitable competition, whether [Illinoisans] get their act together now or next week or next year or whenever. That’s their business,” Holcomb said. “But we should be making hay while the sun’s shining, and it’s shining bright in Indiana. And that’s why I’m encouraged with the progress in Vigo County.”

West-central Indiana’s chances seem promising for a $50-million grant through the state’s Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative, or READI, compared to the local group’s unsuccessful proposal in the similar Regional Cities Initiative in 2015. The Indiana Economic Development Corp. will distribute the grants to regions chosen for the strength of their proposals. Indiana reserved $500 million in federal stimulus funds for the READI grants, aimed at enhancing quality-of-life amenities, talent attraction and entrepreneurial innovation in Hoosier cities and their nearby small towns and rural areas.

Holcomb didn’t mention the specific regions, but sees the program as unique.

READI “is unlike anything I’ve seen in the country,” Holcomb said, “certainly on this scale, that’s bridging the urban and rural divide at a time when there are such anxieties, stresses and strains stretching our systems, whether it be a school or hospitals.”

Of course, people and businesses may not relocate to the Wabash Valley if its main thoroughfare, I-70, is avoided by locals because it’s too dangerous. Twice in the past decade, the Vigo County School Corp. pulled its buses off I-70 because of spates of crashes. Nearly a dozen billboards for semi-truck accident attorneys line I-70 between its two Terre Haute exits. The signs aren’t placed there by accident, no pun intended.

One remedy, a costly one, would be to add a designated trucks-only lane in both directions. A 2007 U.S. Department of Transportation study concluded that adding two lanes to I-70 from Missouri to Ohio would decrease car-truck crashes by 90% and reduce accidents in the general-purpose lanes by half.

The incoming funds from the newly passed federal infrastructure law will help Indiana quicken the completion of its transportation priorities, like widening I-70. Holcomb emphasized that priority, while pointing out the progress on Hoosier roads through his Next Level Roads initiative began in 2017, which includes a $4.7-billion investment over five years to repave streets and highways and rebuild bridges. A 10-cent increase on fuel taxes helps fund that program, which Holcomb said has already led to I-70 upgrades.

Indiana’s $8.8-billion share of the federal infrastructure allocation could put two new lanes on I-70 sooner than expected.

“This is one of the most traveled roads, not just in our state but [among] thoroughfares in the country, and we want to make sure it’s an asset, not [a problem],” Holcomb said. “So, yes, we’ll continue to look at ways to accelerate projects on that stretch.”

The sooner the better. It’s going to get a lot busier real soon.
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