The plaintiffs, including the Hoosier Environmental Council and several business owners, allege that the Indiana Department of Transportation ignored harmful environmental impacts of building a direct route between Evansville and Indianapolis.

It also claims INDOT was biased against a route that would have upgraded the existing U.S. 41-Interstate 70 corridor into a new highway.

It accuses 11 defendants - state and federal agencies and officials - of violating federal environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.

But Steve Schaefer, executive director of Hoosier Voices for I-69, countered the public in Southwestern Indiana overwhelmingly supports building the interstate, even if it is a tollway.

"It's pretty much the same stuff, the same arguments, that they've been using for the past 10 years to slow the project," Schaefer said of opponents. "It's not really a surprise."

Filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, the suit asks a federal judge to declare the Federal Highway Administration's approval of the I-69 corridor violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

It seeks an injunction stopping the $2 billion I-69 project until the defendants "objectively evaluate" the alternative route, U.S. 41 to I-70.

The plaintiffs allege the route, which would cut through Southwestern Indiana, then upgrade Indiana 37 between Bloomington and Indianapolis, would:

- Destroy nearly 7,000 acres of farmland, wetlands and forest.

- Destroy the cave habitats of the endangered Indiana bat.

- Bisect the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge.

- Bisect the Amish community in Daviess County and heavily populated Perry Township in suburban Marion County.

Opposition has come from businesses along Indiana 37 in Martinsville, midway between Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Plaintiffs Brenda and Terry Buster own the Towne View Auto Clinic in Martinsville. If Indiana 37 is upgraded into an interstate, the couple's auto-repair shop would be demolished under eminent domain.

"If the highway comes through, (my business) exists no longer," Brenda Buster said. "My employees are out of employment ... for 13 minutes of (reduced) travel time to Evansville."

Buster said U.S. 41 to I-70, passing near Terre Haute, is the "common-sense" route. "I've traveled it many times and there's nothing wrong with it. It costs half the price-tag of I-69," she said.

Noise, air pollution and disruption to rural life were among plaintiff Sophia Travis' objections to the new-terrain route.

"Indiana is taking a huge step backward by fostering and continuing the obsession with outmoded forms of transportation," said Travis, president of the Monroe County Council.

INDOT spokesman Gary Abell had not seen the lawsuit but said funding already raised through the Major Moves lease will allow the state to build I-69 from Evansville up to the Crane warfare center. He said construction of that segment of the new interstate is on target to begin in summer 2008.

"That's where we're moving, until directed to do otherwise by the court. We are on target to make it at this point," Abell said.

Noting that INDOT has conducted "hundreds" of public meetings over the years, Abell said public input was reflected in the interstate design. Any business owners displaced will be compensated, he said.

Schaefer, of Hoosier Voices for I-69, understood the concerns of the Martinsville businesses, but said all communities along the I-69 corridor eventually would benefit.

"They're completely missing the most important reason for the highway; that's economic development," Schaefer said. "Sure, it will save 15 to 20 minutes off the drive, (but the benefit) is having interstate links to all the communities in the corridor with our state capital."

Besides Travis, the Busters and the Hoosier Environmental Council, other plaintiffs are Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, the Sassafras Audubon Society, Edith Sarra, Bloomington City Councilman Andrew Ruff and Monroe County Councilman Mark Stoops.

Copyright 2019 Journal Media Group. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.