The General Assembly's last-second passage of the Major Moves highway bill has been universally acclaimed as an impressive, significant legislative coup for Gov. Mitch Daniels — "an enormous political victory," according to a March 16 Fort Wayne Journal Gazette editorial.
Despite deep-seated skepticism and divisions within his party, Daniels lost only one Republican in the entire House and Senate when the final votes on Major Moves came just moments before the 2006 session closed on March 14.
In exchange for an up-front $3.8 billion check, Major Moves will transfer control of the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road in Northern Indiana to a global consortium for, in the Journal Gazette's words again, "an unfathomable 75 years."
But how history judges Major Moves, and whether its provisions on I-69 will expedite construction of the NAFTA highway or obstruct it even more, will be determined in legislative sessions still to come. It is arguably the most radical political proposal in Indiana in more than a century. And Hoosiers have responded predictably.
"In my travels around the state I have never seen so many Republicans so angry with a fellow Republican," said Tom Tokarski from Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR). "He is more hated than any politician I have ever known. His time change fiasco drives people to distraction. And his toll road plans are almost universally despised."
Bearing out Tokarski's analysis, an Indianapolis Star poll conducted in the run-up to the Major Moves vote showed 60 percent of Hoosiers oppose the governor's plans. And it engendered heated opposition along the Toll Road counties in Northern Indiana similar to that against I-69 in Bloomington, Martinsville and Southwest Indianapolis' Perry Township.
Jan Boyd, an I-69 activist from Perry, told state officials at a hearing on March 24 that she was "one of thousands of Republicans" who helped get Daniels elected last year but is now determined to drive him from office.
The Journal Gazette: "The political fallout is not over. A majority of Hoosiers oppose the lease, and Republican legislators up for re-election may feel voters' wrath in the November election, particularly in the Toll Road counties. A swing of just three House seats would give Democrats control of a legislative chamber and require Daniels and the GOP to compromise in order to pass legislation for the next two years."
Major Moves includes $700 million for I-69, which Daniels said he wants to start building in 2008. But two deals struck in the final hours could obstruct his way.
One, to appease angry Republicans in Morgan County, would eliminate tolls on I-69 from the south side of Martinsville to Indianapolis. Another, to appease angry Republicans in Perry Township, would move the I-69 intersection with I-465 away from State Road 37.
Tokarski called the political process that produced them "a cynical ploy" to gain Republican votes for Major Moves. He and John Smith from CountUS! said they will disappear in short order.
"It will be back on 37 and fully tolled about as quick as the gavel will open the next legislative session," Smith said. "Daniels has said as much."
Legislators will have to pass another law to overturn the I-69 provisions. And District 61 State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said it is doubtful that Daniels can build I-69 with them in place.
"I questioned whether a toll road for an I-69 extension would be economically viable, even with all of State Road 37 included," he said. "I don't see how it could possibly work with the Martinsville-to-Indianapolis traffic taken out to preserve some votes on Major Moves."
But, Pierce added, more sinister moves may be afoot.
"It makes me wonder if the governor plans to offer up the proposed I-69 corridor as a multi-faceted business opportunity for the next foreign corporation," he said.
"The tolls may never add up to enough on their own, but throw in the rights to rent billboards, lease right-of-way for fiber optic cables or even an outlet mall or two nestled into an Interstate cloverleaf, and maybe a private company will think it is viable to cough up a couple of billion dollars to build the interstate."
Daniels and his transportation head Thomas Sharp say the Perry Township issue can be resolved over time, that they can begin building I-69 in Evansville and work on the northern terminus as they go.
But Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Tim Maloney said it will drag out the I-69 process, which began in the late 1980s, even further.
"The restrictions that were put in the final bill will turn out to be additional obstacles for I-69," Maloney told Associated Press writer Rick Callahan on March 17. "They further complicate an already very complicated and controversial highway."
Daniels has said he'd like to move the connection west, closer to the Indianapolis International Airport. But Maloney said residents of that area have "made it clear they don't want it there."
Maloney said moving the interchange could add three more years to the I-69 timetable.
Tokarski said legislators who agreed to the I-69 provisions "are either incredibly naive or were complicit in the scam." Recalling that many thought Major Moves was too radical to be enacted by the General Assembly, he warns against the threat Daniels poses to the public's trust.
"Don't underestimate Mitch Daniels," he said. "He is diabolically clever, ruthless, powerful, and he is not afraid to lie. As someone once said, 'It takes a long time for the truth to catch up to a lie.'
"And he is getting lots of help from Washington-based advisors and lots of money from powerful lobbying groups. He is without doubt the biggest threat to democracy this state has ever seen."
Steven Higgs can be reached at .