It takes a lot to maintain the Crossroads of America. It takes even more during a pandemic, but the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDoT) took the challenges presented by 2020 and turned them into a successful year. Record investments, reduced project completion times and two major projects are among the reasons ENR Midwest has named INDoT its 2020 Owner of the Year.

INDoT has six district offices that handle everything from construction and detours to repairing potholes and plowing snow. The department maintains more than 29,800 lane-miles of highways across the state. It’s responsible for maintaining more than 5,700 bridges across Indiana. INDoT is also one of the state’s largest agencies, with approximately 3,500 employees.

The department’s history goes back to 1919, when the Indiana State Highway Commission awarded its first contracts, but after more than a century the department had never seen anything like the past year.

“2020 was a strange year all around,” says INDoT Commissioner Joe McGuinness. “But we kept focused on long-range goals of what Hoosiers deserve. We didn’t pull a single project. We stayed in constant contact with everyone, right as the state government started closing some doors.”

While many businesses and industries struggled over the last 12 months, INDoT managed a host of accomplishments: a record $2.08-billion investment in more than 1,400 capital construction projects; approximately 750 bridges reconstructed or rehabilitated; a $462-million investment in 560 local road, bridge, sidewalk and trail projects; and the launch of a 20-year capital construction plan to add 1,000 truck parking spaces and reconstruction welcome centers along Indiana interstates.

“Because of the state’s transportation system and geographic location, we have recognized transportation is our hallmark,” says Scott Manning, INDoT strategic communications director.

McGuiness says INDoT entered the unknown early days of the COVID-19 pandemic just like everyone else, unsure of the future, yet cautiously optimistic.

“Back then [when the pandemic started], I didn’t think this would be where we are a year later,” says McGuinness. “But we were optimistic the pandemic wouldn’t destroy our balance sheet. We had a rainy-day fund. I was talking to our CEO, and he said, ‘This isn’t a rainy day, it’s a downpour. If we don’t use it now, when will we?’”

That rainy day fund resulted in two major projects in 2020: the I-69 Finish Line in southwest Indiana and the $383-million I-65/I-70 Northbound Split Reconstruction in downtown Indianapolis. INDoT’s funding is primarily sourced from federal and state fuel taxes. As of July 2020, Indiana state fuel taxes are 31 cents per gallon on gasoline and 51 cents per gallon on diesel fuel.

The I-69 Finish Line is the sixth and final section of the Interstate 69 connection between Evansville and Indianapolis. The project eliminates more than 200 at-grade crossings and driveways.

“We were just a little crazy enough to start this in the middle of a pandemic,” McGuinness says.

But as Manning points out, the pandemic did present opportunities for INDoT as well.

“In April and May, the stay-at-home orders caused traffic to be down 45-55%,” Manning says. “It sounds strange, but that was an opportunity. Just from the eye test alone, the volume of traffic you’re dealing with was so down.”

The design-build I-65/I-70 North Split Reconstruction project consists of replacing 32 aging bridges and 27 miles of pavement across the heavily traveled interchange. For both the I-69 Finish Line and I-65/I-70 North Split Reconstruction, INDoT relied on some familiar faces, bringing in contractors with which it has shared long histories.

“INDoT is a leader and earns trust in the industry,” says Mark Thompson of Milestone Contractors.

Thompson has been with the company for 40 years, and he says the firm’s relationship with INDoT goes back at least five years before he started.

“It’s not just one contractor needing something, it’s leadership,” Thompson says. “We were deemed essential, and INDoT came to us when traffic was way down. Safety shot up, and that’s because of their leadership. We did not miss a beat here in Indiana.”

That focus on giving the contractor what is needed, extends to the specialty contractor

“At any time, we have in excess of 100 projects with INDoT,” says Steve Varner, project delivery manager at E&B Paving Inc. “If you’re a construction guy like I am, they’re fantastic projects.”

Both Thompson and Varner say INDoT takes a proactive approach to making safety the No. 1 priority for both the public and for workers on the job.

“INDoT was absolutely receptive to the safety issues we brought up,” Thompson says.

“They not only listened, but took it to heart,” Varner says in regard to E&B’s safety discussions with the department.

McGuiness says INDoT is approaching 2021 as light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, and points toward Indiana as being aggressive in performing COVID vaccinations. Meanwhile, INDoT has seen traffic pick up from numbers recorded in spring 2020. McGuiness says freight traffic has actually increased over pre-pandemic levels. Manning says the overall traffic numbers have closed the gap from being down 55% after early stay-at-home orders, to down 8% as of February.

“Being able to deliver despite the pandemic is a great source of pride,” Manning says. “We know the economy is going to open back up at some point, but what can we do to help it open? Let’s rephase some projects to get in and get out faster. Once people are back, there’s less construction on the road.”

Both INDoT and the contractors it works with have said they have a commitment to the people. In the 100-plus years of INDoT and its predecessors managing Indiana’s roads, the state’s population has jumped to 6.6 million from 2.9 million. Car registrations went to 5.6 million from 227,000, and the miles of paved, state-managed roads increased to 11,206 from 800.

“I’m a community guy,” Varner says. “The people I talk to at breakfast and see at church are the people I’m working for. They’re the ones paying the gas tax and funding INDoT. So we work for them. It’s a great feeling to be a part of that.”