Pharos-Tribune columnist

BRAZIL, Ind. — This past week was a bumpy, bipolar road for RV1 and the Highway Governor, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr.

His FSSA Commissioner and fellow privateer Mitch Roob had to pull a sweetheart deal for the agency controller, set to make $180,000 a year as a consultant, opposed to the $100,000 a year he was making as a state employee. That one had a strange stench to it.

Then there’s the mess at the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute where the director is to be fired after another sweetheart deal for a family friend (who was making $95,000 a year at a not-for-profit agency with one employee).

And Indiana Democrats are nagging the governor about public records requests it has made (and have been ignored thus far), seeking e-mails from INDOT Commissioner Tom Sharp. Last week, the Indiana Public Access Counselor issued an opinion chiding Gov. Daniels over lengthy response times.

“It’s been a week since the Public Access Counselor issued her opinion, and we’ve heard nothing,” said Indiana Democratic Party Chair Dan Parker. “It’s getting to the point where we’re left no alternative but to ask, ‘What are they hiding?’”

Sharp had hosted what Parker calls a “high dollar” reception for GOP donors last August.

Which gets me to the heart of this week’s topic: Indiana’s other “highway govenor.”

If you’ve ever driven the Indiana Toll Road near Elkhart, you’ve probably seen the “George N. Craig” rest plaza beyond the white line and the asphalt berm. They were the inventions Republican Gov. Craig, who served from 1953 to 1957 at a time when President Dwight Eisenhower unveiled the interstate system.

Eisenhower put Gov. Craig on the safety committee for the interstate system and he was confronted with weighty questions, such as should the berm be sod or cement?

“The state engineers said the berms should be sod,” Craig told me back in 1986. “I said I thought it should be a hard surface.”

The engineers feared that the hard berms would create a confusing “three-lane highway.”

“I said, ‘Why don’t you draw a white line between the hard surface and the berm?” Craig recalled. The engineers originally told him that people “wouldn’t pay attention to it.” Two years later, the National Safety Council adopted Craig’s suggestion and the first white lines were drawn on U.S. 40 between Brazil and Indianapolis.

Craig was the father of the Indiana Toll Road. “I had it built,” Craig said. “There were three roads — 6, 20 and 30 — and those three roads carried all the traffic from Chicago to the East Coast. You had terrible traffic conditions around the steel areas.”

Gov. Craig’s administration was known for more than building the toll road and expanding the highway system, and this is where we get back to Commissioner Sharp and others in the Indiana highway industry.

This past week, they announced record construction projects thanks to the Major Moves windfall. Gov. Craig’s INDOT Commissioner, Virgil Smith, was indicted and imprisoned for rigging specifications. Craig called it a “blunt mark” on his legacy.

Little wonder that at the 92nd Annual Purdue University Road School last March, Gov. Daniels told his administration and 1,600 transportation officials gathered, saying of Major Moves, “Those folks who had concerns about this measure have the right to ask, ‘Will you bungle it?””

There is a huge difference between Govs. Craig and Daniels. Major Moves passed the legislature with just two Democratic votes, as the opposition stoked fears of foreigners invading Indiana.

Gov. Craig found himself battling the isolatonists in his own party, including Sen. William Jenner, whom Craig described as “medieval,” a term yet to be applied to House Minority Leader B. Patrick Bauer. The two battled for the heart and soul of the GOP.

When it came time to pass his programs in the legislature, Gov. Craig found an ally in State Sen. Matt Welsh, a future Democratic governor. “I owe much to him,” Craig said of Welsh. “The Democrats helped me out.”

Gov. Daniels couldn’t find a Democratic legislator of gubernatorial timber to reach out to.

So beyond the headlines hinting of scandal, impropriety and stonewalling from the Daniels administration, we saw other headlines: $826 million in highway construction in the fiscal year that starts July 1, reaching a 10-year total of $11.88 billion through 2015. A fast-tracked U.S. 31 freeway (thank you, Rep. Jackie Walorski); Fort-to-Port; two new Ohio River bridges at Louisville; another at Madison (thank you, Rep. Billy Bright).

Along with all the new highway concrete came the promise of yet another “foreign invasion’ — this time Honda — which may build a sprawling auto assembly plant along I-74 (no coincidence) near Greensburg that could employ thousands.

In one week, we’ve seen all the promise of the Daniels administration, and some of the dark shadows.

There are a lot of us who have put our reputations on the line with the promise of Major Moves. So here’s a warning to INDOT and beyond: There will be little tolerance for screwing this up.

Brian Howey, a Peru native, is publisher of The Howey Political Report, the weekly briefing on Indiana politics.

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