By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Farmers and residents living along or near old U.S. Highway 24 in Ohio and Indiana will see several benefits from the opening of an improved roadway between Fort Wayne and Toledo, according to an official with the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT).
The final portion of the Fort to Port project, designed to connect Fort Wayne with the Port of Toledo via a four-lane divided highway, opened after a ribbon-cutting ceremony Nov. 14 near Fort Wayne. The project straightened, widened and realigned about 75 miles of U.S. 24 between the cities.
“This will take major traffic off the existing route and allow farmers to move their machinery from farm to farm without having to compete with trucks,” said Kirk Slusher, deputy director of ODOT’s District 1.
“This will be so much safer than the existing route. In the long term, it will enable them to more easily move their product from community to community, to grain elevators and to other cities. Transportation is the key to be able to move product.”
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels attended the ribbon-cutting, as did officials from both states.
The Indiana section of the project – 11.2 miles – cost $93 million, about $29 million under estimate, Daniels said. The project also opened a couple of weeks ahead of the Dec. 1 estimated completion date. The Ohio portion of Fort to Port cost more than $400 million, ODOT officials have said. Construction started in Indiana in 2008 and in Ohio in 2006.
The improved U.S. 24 will provide safer and faster travel from the Midwest in several directions, said Will Wingfield, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation.
“It opens up a whole corridor to Toledo, Detroit and into Canada,” he explained. “It also provides convenient access to the Northeastern seaboard. It provides access to Indianapolis, Lafayette and going even further west and southwest, to St. Louis, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. For farmers in this area, being able to get their goods to these growth markets and international markets will be huge.”
Indiana’s portion was paid for by money from Major Moves, funded by the lease of the state’s toll road to the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co. The lease, which went into effect in June 2006, provides nearly $4 billion in proceeds and runs for 75 years. Federal and state money paid for the Ohio section of the project.
After he took office in 2005, Daniels introduced Major Moves as his plan to finance needed construction and repairs on the state’s roadways.
“We want to be a state of prosperity,” he said. “(I wondered), how do we rebuild our infrastructure, which is such a magnet for new jobs. We are the crossroads of America. If there’s any state that needs a superior transportation network, it’s Indiana.”
The process of replacing the dangerous old U.S. 24 with a safer divided highway wasn’t easy, said Indiana state Sen. David Long (R-16th).
“Had it not been for Major Moves, we would not have built this road, period,” he noted. “If anybody had said we’d be here, 10 years ago, dedicating this road, we’d have been laughed off the stage. (The governor) came up with a proposal that was beyond bold. It was outrageous. It was creative. It was unheard of.”
By the end of 2015, more than $11 billion will be invested in Major Moves projects in the state, Long said. Projects expected to be completed or under way by then include 65 new or reconstructed interchanges, 87 roadways and more than 6,300 miles of highway resurfacing.
Construction on another Indiana project, the Hoosier Heartland Corridor, is expected to be completed next year. The corridor will connect Lafayette to Fort Wayne, a 99-mile route, with a four-lane divided highway. U.S. 24 from Logansport to Fort Wayne has been widened in stages over the years, and 36 miles of Indiana 25 are being rebuilt or realigned in two sections.
The road from Interstate 65 to U.S. 421 at Delphi opened last month. The section from U.S. 421 to U.S. 24 at Logansport will open in 2013.