Indiana DOT Ramps Up Construction in Wake of New Transportation Funding
Solid Partnerships Increase Advantages: INDOT Commissioner McGuinness Stresses Teamwork with Contractors to Meet Future Transportation Needs
The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) experienced significant changes last year. In January, Governor Eric Holcomb appointed former Franklin, Indiana, Mayor Joe McGuinness as the agency’s new Commissioner. At the end of last year’s legislative session, Indiana lawmakers passed a new transportation plan that provides long-term funding to maintain state and local roads.
“I keep getting phone calls from other state DOTs asking how we did that,” McGuinness said.
The new funding means more opportunities for contractors. “Since January of this year, we’re averaging over $100 million in contracts let per month, and we expect that rate to continue,” McGuinness said. “In April and May we were in the neighborhood of $200 million each month.”
Through six district offices, INDOT maintains 11,000 centerline miles – including 13 interstate highways – and nearly 6,000 bridges. The agency also regulates 4,500 rail miles, more than 110 public access airports, and more than 560 private access airports. As the agency prepares for a busy future, they’re looking for new strategies to overcome the labor shortage, as well as technology to work in harmony with connected vehicles and other coming innovations.
As a result of the 2017 legislation, Indiana’s fuel tax increased last July. “Starting this year, we’ll see a steady increase in revenue,” McGuinness said. “We previously received less than eight percent of the existing sales tax on fuel – most of it had gone to general fund obligations – but over the next few years, that number transitions to a little over 72 percent going to roads and bridges. The steady incline in the revenue chart gives us an opportunity to ramp up. It also gives contractors and consultants an opportunity to ramp up for the work coming online.”
In fiscal year 2018, INDOT’s budget totals $2 billion, with $500 million allocated to operations and the rest to construction and maintenance. When the gasoline sales tax finishes transitioning from the Indiana General Fund to the State Highway Fund in 2024,INDOT’s annual budget will reach $2.7 billion.
“Right now one of our main priorities is delivering a very robust road construction plan,” McGuinness said. “Most DOTs have a deep bench of projects they just don’t have the money for today. Now we can unload our bench. Instead of living day-to-day, we can forecast out years in advance. The funding bill really changed the way we’re able to think about the future of our transportation needs.”
As plans develop, “We’re continuing to solidify relationships with our consultants and contracting partners,” McGuinness added. “It’s a team effort. I’ve really stressed that since Next Level Roads (a five-year, $4.7 billion road improvement plan) launched last summer. Buckle up; we’ve got a lot of projects to get done over the next several years and we can’t do it alone. We’ve got to work together and come up with creative ways to deliver this program.”
McGuinness actively seeks new ideas. “We shouldn’t be thinking about how we put down asphalt and concrete for the last number of decades. What are the new, innovative ways to put those materials down? What needs to be in those materials? I want our contractors to say, ‘What do you think about using this material instead of that one, or this kind of bonding agent instead of that one?’ I’m not an engineer. I lean on contractors for those ideas, then I take them back to our engineers. We’ve got to do this together.”
Supporting Local Projects
Before joining INDOT, McGuinness not only served as Franklin’s Mayor but also worked in municipal finance. (See “A History of Municipal Service” sidebar.)
“I bring a unique twist in that I’m locally minded,” he said. “I have relationships with a lot of mayors across the state. I understand their needs and how we can help them achieve their goals. I believe in strong relationships with mayors, county commissioners, town managers, and council members because they know what their communities need better than we do.”
Through the coming months, he anticipates opportunities for partnerships between INDOT and local municipalities to increase. “Previously we had a sunset on funding for the Community Crossings program; now we have a sustainable source. We’ll see at least $150 million per year granted to local preservation projects.”
In addition, INDOT unveiled the new Local Trax matching grant program in April for high-priority railroad safety projects. These initiatives will increase local construction work throughout the state.
Finding Qualified Workers
Unfortunately, the increase in construction leads to increased labor challenges. “We’re all in the same situation with the workforce shortage,” McGuinness said. “Finding a constant source of reliable folks to show up to work is not just a DOT problem. It becomes magnified when we’re hiring and our construction partners are hiring.”
INDOT currently employees 3,600. “We’re built for a head count of 3,800 and right now we’re 200 short of that,” McGuinness said.
To find new workers, INDOT recruiters tried new avenues. “They came up with new, innovative initiatives to get out and talk to young folks in middle schools and high schools,” McGuinness said. “We tell students, ‘If you want to be an engineer or finance person, we need those folks. But if you’re more interested in vocational training, here’s what a career at INDOT can do.’ We’re trying to reimage the highway technician job. There’s obviously a lot of labor involved, but there’s a lot of technology, too.”
About two-thirds of INDOT’s employees work as skilled highway technicians, performing road repairs in the summer and clearing snow in the winter. “Since July, we increased the starting pay for highway technicians by $2 per hour in an effort to lure new folks,” McGuinness said. “We don’t require a Class A CDL when they start. We tell them, ‘We’ll work with you, train you, and support you as you earn that certification.’”
What Lies Ahead
Going forward, “It’s a goal of Governor Holcomb and the legislature to make I-65 and I-70 a minimum of three lanes in each direction,” McGuinness said. “Certain portions already have that, but they want to make sure we have six lanes from state line to state line. We’ve got a lot of added travel lane projects coming up.”
McGuinness’ vision for INDOT includes a focus on emerging transportation technologies. For instance, INDOT launched a three-year, $30 million program that includes transitioning all of its 2,600 traffic signals to connected signals. “As you drive down the road in a connected vehicle, our signals will talk back and forth with your car,” McGuinness explained. “You’ll know when the light will turn red or green and what traffic conditions look like ahead. In time most people will be exposed to this, so we need to be ready.”
That project also includes adding more of the traffic cameras used by INDOT, Homeland Security, State Police, and the media. “Right now we only have three areas with traffic cameras – central Indiana, southern Indiana near Jeffersonville and the Ohio River, and northwest Indiana,” McGuinness said. “Over the next three years we’ll roll out HD cameras at all the interstate interchanges throughout the state.”
To keep the department prepared for the future, “We’re really trying to think outside the box and talk to folks in the automotive industry,” McGuinness said. “What are you building? What do we need to prepare for? We also lean on our strong partnership with Purdue University. We want to see the entire forest and not fixate on one of the trees. Let’s think 20 years from now.”
A History of Municipal Service
A lifelong resident of Johnson County, Indiana, Joe McGuinness graduated from Franklin College in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Criminal Justice. He worked as a Johnson County Probation Officer for eight years, then joined Peters Municipal Consultants in Franklin, Ind., in 2008 as an accountant and financial adviser. In 2009, he earned an MBA in Accounting from Indiana Wesleyan University. He was elected Mayor of Franklin, Indiana, and took office in January 2012, serving in his second term when Governor Holcomb appointed him to lead INDOT.