HARRISBURG - It was a true baptism by fire.

An oil tanker had toppled over just outside the city limits and exploded at the worst possible spot: the middle overpass on a double-deck interchange over one of the busiest highways in the East.

No one was killed or seriously injured in the incident last May, but the road structures were badly damaged, forcing the closure of I-81 and restricting access to Route 22/322, the main highway between the state capital and State College.

The incident, which would mean travel headaches for hundreds of thousands of motorists, catapulted Pennsylvania's unassuming transportation secretary, Barry Schoch, into the spotlight.

Schoch (pronounced Shoke) was not quite midway through his third year on the job, overseeing the Department of Transportation in a state with the fifth-largest network of highways and third-largest number of bridges, when he was thrust onto live TV to address a nightmarish traffic situation.

With PowerPoint clicker in hand, he dished out tanker fuel statistics and highway traffic numbers mixed with explanations of the effect of fire on steel and concrete. His calm, astute handling of the crisis won him praise from other agency chiefs, lawmakers, and the public.

"His stock rose with the truck fire," said Drew Crompton, chief counsel for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson). "It was hell for three days, but he instilled confidence to get through it."

Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan had similar recollections, praising Schoch for an "outstanding job at a difficult time."

"The results could have been much worse for the people traveling in and out of the city," Noonan said last week. Schoch "and all of the employees at PennDot did a fantastic job."

The truck fire wasn't his first crisis. In 2011, Schoch had handled snowstorms and the aftermath of a tropical storm that submerged large swaths of roads in the eastern half of the state.

But six months after the fire, Schoch went on to log his premier achievement since taking office. He led Gov. Corbett's fight to win passage of a $2.3 billion transportation bill.

Emissary, expert

A professional civil engineer, Schoch, 53, played emissary and expert navigating the obstacle-filled waters of the General Assembly, where Republicans were loath to approve a gas-tax increase, and Democrats who backed the bill were set against tying the funding to union concessions.

Not since 1997 had the legislature agreed to such an investment in roads, bridges, and mass transit.

"We have to have annual investment," Schoch said. 'These are public assets, and we have under-invested in our infrastructure."

To illustrate his point, Schoch carted around a chunk of concrete that fell off a 105-year-old bridge in Harrisburg last year as a show-and-tell piece.

The chunk still sits on the conference table in his corner office in the Keystone state office building, overlooking Harrisburg.

Schoch was born in DuBois, in north-central Pennsylvania, but moved several times as his father rose as a school administrator. The family settled down in the fruit-growing region near Gettysburg, where he spent summers working in the orchards picking apples and peaches.

Schoch earned a civil engineering degree from Pennsylvania State University and for 15 years worked for the McCormick Taylor firm, designing and managing some of the largest road construction projects in the state. Among them was the long-awaited Pennsylvania Turnpike/I-95 interchange - just now beginning construction - as well as advising on high-speed rail.

Schoch said he agreed to leave the private sector out of a civic obligation. "I care immensely about the commonwealth, and I care about its economic status," he said.

Schoch lives outside Harrisburg with his wife, Karyn, and their 21/2-year old twins, Jackson and Jocelyn.

In his time off, Schoch is front man for a local bar band, the Basement Boys, which plays covers of 1970s tunes by the Rolling Stones and Bob Seger.

Crompton said he had bumped into Schoch, a fellow father of youngsters, at Target, buying extra-large boxes of diapers, after watching him work long hours in the Capitol.

'Not partisan'

Crompton said Schoch has an uncanny ability to explain tough concepts in simple language and generate consensus on a big spending bill. "He was there from start to finish and framed issues as well if not better than anyone else," he said.

Even some Democratic leaders praise Schoch for being out front on the bill - before Corbett - and leading the effort to get it across the finish line.

"He's not partisan and has a great way of explaining complicated issues to the general public," said Rep. Joe Markosek of Allegheny County, the former ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee.

The chairman of the state government committee, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), is a Schoch critic. He blames Schoch for creating traffic problems last summer by putting weight restrictions on more than 1,000 bridges.

"I know it was exaggerated" in an effort to win passage of the bill, Metcalfe said of bridge conditions.

Schoch dismisses the suggestion, saying that road crews lost a construction season when the legislature failed to act last summer. Coupled with funding uncertainties, he was left with no choice.

"Rep. Metcalfe is incorrect with his assertion, and he and all elected officials were advised of the impending decision prior to last summer's session," said Schoch.

For Schoch, now comes the easy part: doling out the money. Schoch said he and his team are working with regional transportation agencies to prioritize projects and get a jump on spring construction.

"He's a superstar," said Crompton, who rarely bestows compliments. "He believed in this before he got on board with the administration, and he believed more when saw the numbers and realized Pennsylvania needed to do something more with roads and bridges."

717-783-2584 @inkyamy