Region's first free expressway built in "another time"

Tri-State nudged into region gently
2007-04-01T00:00:00Z Region's first free expressway built in "another time"KEITH BENMAN
kbenman@nwitimes.com
219.933.3326
nwitimes.com
April 01, 2007 12:00 am  • 

Thurm Ferree, former state senator, remembers a time when people went for Sunday drives on what is now called the Borman Expressway as if it were another Lake County country road.

"The bottom line is, we had a blue-collar work force, jobs were plentiful and wages were good, and everyone was for it," Ferree said. "It was a whole different time."

And the Borman, then called the Tri-State Expressway, was a whole different roadway in the 1950s from what it is today.

Its two paved lanes in each direction were separated by a large grass median. The narrowest of gravel shoulders ran along either side. There was no need for sound barriers. It was just a notch above a typical country highway.

And there really was no need to convince people that the Tri-State Expressway was needed when plans were laid for the road and its extensions from the late 1940s through the building of its final leg in 1964.

That contrasts with the situation now with the proposed Illiana Expressway, which has drawn vociferous opposition in rural Porter and LaPorte counties as well as some urban centers in Lake County.

That opposition finds itself pitted against major business organizations and Gov. Mitch Daniels, who, at least until recently, was the roadway's biggest booster.

Then, as now, businesses were big backers of the new expressway.

"A lot of things that had to move quickly had nowhere to go," Ferree said. "It was industry that got it going."

The Tri-State Expressway was built interchange by interchange from the Illinois line. In 1951, it ended at Calumet Avenue. Within a few years, it was extended to Indianapolis Boulevard and Kennedy Avenue. By 1956, it had reached Burr Street.

It was often mocked as the "road to nowhere," because it dead-ended at each interchange until it was built out to the next.

The original concept had been to connect the Tri-State with the Indiana Toll Road, which opened in 1956. But that connection didn't happen until 1964, when Gov. Matthew Welsh opened the 5-mile Gary-to-Burns Harbor section of the Tri-State, which was built at a total cost of $13.9 million.

Four years later, the roadway was widened from four to six lanes. One year later, it was renamed for Apollo 8 astronaut and Gary native Frank Borman. It quickly gained the reputation of being one of the busiest truck routes in the United States.

Schererville historian Art Schweitzer said if there was any battle over the Borman, it was the perpetual war for funding waged against the powers-that-were in Indianapolis.

That united Lake County communities, which fought for the money year-by-year and mile-by-mile.

"Primarily everybody up here was involved, whether it was a social group, a Lions Club, a Rotary, everybody would do something for the Borman," Schweitzer said. "And all the politicians had their eyes on it."

Public office holders would crow each time funding was secured for another mile, another exit, even another drainage ditch or shrubbery around an existing section.

"It was always a pet project," Schweitzer said.

Schweitzer said the current controversy over the Illiana may slow up plans for the roadway, but won't halt its actual construction. That's because prominent developers and business people are backing the road.

"The road will roll through," Schweitzer said. "It's just a matter of time."

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