Whatever else might be said about the Governor's Major Moves program, it is about the only way that the killer road U.S. Highway 24 east of New Haven to the state line is going to be made safer.
Fort to Port is a needed project.
I should know. I organized the cross-state meeting in 1989 that started Fort to Port.
I addressed letters to every Mayor, every Chamber of Commerce, every County Commissioner, every state legislator, and every highway department in Indiana and Ohio along U.S. 24 . The letters invited them to a meeting at the Woodburn Multi-Purpose Building, the converted school that was home to the Fire Department and the Woodburn branch library. John Holmes, my legislative assistant, was invaluable in preparing for that meeting.
So was another fellow, Ken Knoblauch of Woodburn. I asked Ken to help make arrangements for the meeting hall. Ken called up a few weeks before the meeting and asked whether we shouldn't have banner made for the meeting. He wanted to run an idea past me. He asked whether a banner with "Fort to Port" would be alright. I said it sounded fine. I may have organized the meeting but Ken named it. He deserves recognition before that gets lost in history.
The meeting hall was packed with an outpouring of people, largely from Ohio. Allen County was represented by Eli Samaan. Woodburn and New Haven were well-represented. Oddly, neither the Fort Wayne City administration nor the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce sent a representative.
The outgrowth of that packed meeting was the formation of Fort to Port as an organization. Things moved along quickly on the Ohio side. By the time the third meeting of Fort to Port was held at the Paulding County Fairgrounds the growing movement had gotten the attention of Ohio Governor Celeste's administration. The head of the Ohio Department of Transportation helicoptered in to the Paulding County Fairgrounds to announce that Ohio was moving Fort to Port from a point way down on its priority list of highway improvements to a spot near the top.
Toward the end of that meeting, however, a fellow from the Indiana Department of Transportation rose to read a statement. The good feelings of the meeting were dampened when he read the statement from the Indiana administration. The message was that Indiana had substantial priorities in front of any improvement to U.S. 24, particularly the completion of the Hoosier Heartland improvements to U.S. 24 from western Huntington County to Logansport and the extension of I-69 to Evansville.
It would have been nice if he had at least told those of us from Indiana prior to the start of the meeting what the message would be.
How ironic, that on this day of the Governor's signing the Major Moves legislation that two semi-trucks collided with each other on U.S. 24 east of Bruick Road in Allen County. The accident killed one and injured three others. The highway was blocked for hours.
I have seen my share of the dead and the injured on that highway. I was an emergency medical technician. Our ambulance served that entire length of US 24 from New Haven to the state line.
My brother and I saw a lot. My father, uncle and grandfather saw most of the rest of the carnage over the decades before the 1970's.
It was why as a state representative I would ask the State Highway Department when the Department would be making the plans to four-lane U.S. 24. My first inquiries in the early 1980's were met with a reply from the State Highway Director that the state did not generally plan to improve highways with parallel four-lane highways serving the same traffic.
He meant the Toll Road and U.S. Highway 30 (Lincoln Highway). This didn't take into account that U.S. 24 was one of the only sections of federal highway between two cities of the top 100 population cities in the United States that was not served by a four-lane highway.
The deaths and the injuries from high-speed accidents continued. At least the speeds aren't as high as had once been the case. It is inconceivable now, but until the lowering of highway speeds to 55 mph during the energy crisis in the 1970's, the speed limit on U.S. 24 east of New Haven was 65 mph. Once the speed limit was capped off at 55 the fatalities decreased; however, it did not end the toll of lives lost and injuries sustained.
When Jack Isenbarger of Muncie became Director of the Highway Department, he responded with the directness for which he was known and respected. He responded to my letter of the late 1980's with a different answer than his predecessor had. Jack said he had asked his department to place on his desk all the traffic count historical data for U.S. 24. He wrote that there existed certain standards that were a yardstick for determining when traffic counts were high enough to justify a four-lane highway.
Jack Isenbarger said that according to the Indiana Highway Department's own standards, the traffic counts justifying four-laning had been exceeded in the mid-1960s. He said that improvements were way past the time they were needed. Jack was a good man in that job and I appreciated the change in leadership there. Soon thereafter, however, Jack Isenbarger was gone with the change in adminstration following the 1988 election.
So, here we are, almost 17 years past that meeting in Woodburn which resulted in the formation of the Fort to Port organization. Happily, the members of the U.S. House of Representatives who have served the corridor - from both parties - have worked in a bi-partisan fashion for the federal highway portion of the improvements. This has allowed planning to take place.
Construction has been another matter. The possibility, at long last, of improvements to U.S. 24 which will save lives is long overdue. It has been a bloody wait.
MORE: Toledo Blade story referring to the "grass-roots" Fort to Port effort.
About the Author:
Mitchell V. Harper served as a member of the Indiana House of Representatives from 1978 -1990. He was State Chair of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). While in the Indiana House he was chair of the Labor Committee, Urban Affairs Committee. He served as co-chair of the Environmental Affairs Committee.
Mr. Harper is a native of New Haven, Indiana, and now resides in Fort Wayne.