Hours into his new job as the leader of the state department of transportation, Joe McGuinness already had a crisis to deal with.
A vehicle had struck an Interstate 465 overpass at Rockville Road, forcing that section of the interstate to be shut down.
He was preparing for the first meeting between all state department heads and the governor, and was quickly called into a private meeting with the governor and head of Indiana State Police about the bridge issue. His task: make sure the governor was kept informed.
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That same week, the state also was preparing for what could have been a major ice storm, but fortunately, didn’t hit Indiana as expected.
For McGuinness, the crises were no different from when he was mayor of Franklin and he never knew what the day would bring, he said. He had woken up to fires, snow storms, threats made at the high school and other issues that needed his attention, he said.
“For the last five years, I woke up every morning not knowing what was going to happen,” he said.
In his new role, McGuinness is now overseeing a statewide department with a $1.9 billion budget and 3,500 employees. He has eight deputy commissioners who report to him on the details of projects, spending and planning. When severe weather is coming or a road or bridge needs an emergency fix, his deputy commissioners talk with the workers out in the field, and then pass that information to McGuinness.
One of the biggest adjustments for McGuinness is going from solely focusing on Franklin to the entire state. If lake-effect snow hits northern Indiana, he needs to know. If an ice storm is coming to southern Indiana, that has to be on his radar, too.
And his job doesn’t just include road projects, since INDOT also oversees some railroad work, such as the South Shore Line in northern Indiana, and runways for airports.
On his to-do list: filling two vacant deputy commissioner positions and hiring the chief legal counsel, working with lawmakers to get approval for the department’s budget and on proposals to increase road funding and meeting with the long list of contractors, employees and community groups who want an introduction with the new INDOT commissioner. In the next few weeks, he plans to travel to the state’s six regional offices, including Fort Wayne, LaPorte and Vincennes, to meet with employees.
But he also has other more long-term goals, including making sure the state agency keeps a focus on local road projects, which are extremely important to the communities where that work is happening, he said.
“I am still an advocate for local projects, because that is the world I understand the best,” McGuinness said.
McGuinness’ work in Franklin during the past five years, including redevelopment on the east side and ongoing work to Jefferson and King streets, are key reasons why he was hired for the commissioner job, Gov. Eric Holcomb said.
What Franklin has been doing is a model for the rest of the state, Holcomb said.
“He is such a forward-looking, long vision, creative individual, that we needed that on a bigger scale so the rest of the state can benefit from that type of leadership,” Holcomb said. “Franklin should be proud.”
And for McGuinness, leading a city of about 24,000 helped him see his new job from a different perspective. Even though a $500,000 project is small for a state department with a $1.9 billion budget, it isn’t small to the community where the work is needed, he said.
Infrastructure is also a critical piece of what communities need to attract economic development, showing companies that they are investing in their community, too, he said.
“Whether a project is $500,000 or $1 billion, they are all important. And to that small community, that is the most important project to them,” he said.
Recently, he worked with the mayor of Huntingburg in southern Indiana to get a state-funded project moved up by a year, he said.
That’s why another goal of his is to shorten the length of time it takes to plan, fund and start construction projects. Years ago, that time frame was eight to 10 years for the state. Now, it’s down to about three years. And McGuinness wants to trim that even further to two to two-and-a-half years, he said.
And he wants to work with other state agencies, such as the department of natural resources, department of environmental management and the Indiana Economic Development Corp. to develop priorities and find ways to partner on projects, he said.
One key issue in this legislative session is additional funding for road projects, and some of the possibilities include a higher gas tax, new fees and tolls. His office was also tracking more than 130 other proposals in the legislature that deal with multiple issues, from zoning issues to billboards along highways, he said.
This week, McGuinness was in charge of presenting the department’s budget to lawmakers, where he also answered questions about how often the state mows the medians along highways and interstates and why it isn’t done more often. The answer: the medians are mowed three or four times a year because it costs $4 million each time.
The following day, he was back at the statehouse testifying about one of the key road funding bills that lawmakers are considering.
So far, McGuinness said he hasn’t felt overwhelmed, and he is happy he took the job. The hardest part so far was leaving his office in Franklin, he said.
He cleaned out his office alone, knowing he might get emotional, and struggled with feelings of guilt for leaving what he had been doing for five years and the employees he has become close with. But he organized his office to prepare the next mayor and key projects he started, such as redevelopment of the east side and work to redo Jefferson and King streets, are ready to go.
And he knows that whoever is the next leader of Franklin will do an excellent job, he said.
“Franklin has been around for nearly 200 years, and I was just five years of it,” he said.