A Conversation with Jeremy Hunter, Chief Engineer with Indiana DOT
By Lorella Angelini, Angelini Consulting Services, LLC
Jeremy Hunter is Chief Engineer with the Indiana Department of Transportation and past Chair of the Mid-West Bridge Preservation Partnership. As a leader, Jeremy adopts a collaborative approach method that facilitates solving issues and advancing programs. Bridge preservation is certainly an advanced program at Indiana DOT. This State can proudly show a remarkable track record of 94% of bridges in good or fair condition. My conversation with Jeremy starts with a question about this record.
According to the Federal Highway Administration (see LINK), Indiana’s bridges exceed the national average for safety, with 94% of bridges in fair or good condition. CNBC (see LINK) classifies Indiana as the State with the best 2019 Infrastructure Score. What are the reasons for this impressive data?
Team work and communication are key elements of how Indiana DOT has been able to reach such a remarkable score. Those two are really critical elements. When we think of an engineering program, we tend to characterize it through its technical aspects, while its successful completion usually depends on well-executed team work and effective communication.
What I have always focused on throughout my career with the Agency is how we make bridge preservation practitioners feel as if they are part of the solution, and how we give them proper tools and resources to be successful. Communication is a very important tool. It means making sure that everybody who has an idea or individuates a problem, feels comfortable communicating the idea or the problem, whether this person is on the frontline or in a director-type of role.
Can you make an example of the collaborative approach method that you encourage?
At Indiana DOT we have adopted techniques for bridge waterproofing, including both older and newer bridges. These techniques keep water under control and prevent it from wearing out structural materials. At Indiana DOT waterproofing is a pivotal element of the bridge preservation program. One of the reasons the program functions so well is that anybody who notices something that might be a waterproofing issue, feels confident to signal it, makes everybody aware of the issue, and asks for solutions that can be adopted. This is where team-work, collaboration and communication come in. People in all areas of the Agency are comfortable with this approach. If they see something that needs to be repaired, they do not let it get to a point that becomes a problem but they signal it right away. Then they try to come up with a solution as quickly as possible.
I understand that this method values employees, especially those who are proactive and expert. Am I correct?
Yes, people come first. Our asset management system is only as good as the people that put information into it. The more informed inspectors and maintenance professionals are, the more they communicate with each other about best practices and right solutions, the more valuable is the data they enter into the system. Building a comprehensive asset management system always starts with the people that select and compile data.
What are the metrics that Indiana DOT adopts for its successful bridge preservation program?
I am not keen on the use of metrics. I do not like focusing on the current status, or where we are at the moment. If we judge ourselves by the metrics, we will very likely end up relaxing and not moving forward. We want to judge ourselves based on different criteria. For example, we continuously improving? Are we learning new strategies? Are we coming up with new, innovative solutions? Are we developing relationships that teach us what we need to know to do our job better tomorrow?
In my line of thinking our bridge program is successful if everybody is continually learning, improving and finding innovation. If we do that, then we will see that our metrics will continue to get better. We want to go from good to great. We do not settle for less.
What challenges are Indiana DOT facing in order to keep bridges in good and fair conditions?
Training is our major challenge, but it is also an opportunity. We need to continue to learn how to train the next generation that is entering the Agency. Personnel will come and go at Indiana DOT, as in any other major organization and industry. What will determine whether we can sustain our current score and improve on it, depends on how we will be able to integrate new personnel into our existing teams. We need to continuously be able to add and train new people, and help them become the best they can be.
You served as the Chair on the Midwest Bridge Preservation Partnership board. Could you speak of your experience with the TSP2 Partnership?
Participating in the Partnership has been an amazing experience for me. I had no idea how rewarding being a part of the Partnership would have been when I first got involved with it.
The Midwest Partnership gathers an amazing team of bridge engineers and practitioners who actually deal with the same challenges and have similar opportunities. Being able to share knowledge with this team has been of great value to me. Before joining the Partnership there were many times when I had an idea for solving a problem but I did not have information on whether the idea was good or not. Thanks to the Partnership I can now call my counterpart in another State and get feedback. Some Midwestern States have in fact tried solutions that have never been implemented in Indiana. Sharing solutions and lessons learned make every State in the Partnership better.
Being able to learn and grow from the relationships that I have developed, having the opportunity to see what the other States are doing, being able to ask questions about challenges or the implementation of new solutions and innovative techniques, these have been the major and the most exciting assets that I gained from being part of the Partnership.
You are a member of two TSP2 Working Groups, the “Preservation Matrix” and “Bridge Preservation Research”. Could you briefly speak about these Working Groups?
The preservation matrix (see LINK) is an easy way to summarize and showcase the different solutions that each State is adopting for bridge deck overlay.
Within bridge preservation there is a large number of solutions and technologies that can be implemented. You cannot honestly try to utilize all of them. You have to choose what you think is going to be the right solution for your problem in your State. The matrix is beneficial in helping with this choice. It has been very rewarding for me being able to have such an exchange of information with the preservation matrix team.
Being part of the preservation research team has been equally rewarding. So much research gets done throughout the Midwest and the USA that it is not always easy to know what research has already been done and then learn about its results. The Working Group has responded to this need with a comprehensive research report (see LINK). The team has also helped identify research needs. We are always faced with new problems to solve and new challenges to overcome. Research is a very powerful tool to address these issues and individuate solutions.
Do you have a success story that you would like to highlight?
My success story entails the relationship with the TSP2 Bridge Preservation Partnership. I have learned so much from the Partnership that I have been able to implement new preservation actions at Indiana DOT, which have been of benefit to the State.
At the beginning of my career, I spent 14 years as a consulting bridge designer. When I joined Indiana DOT, I did not really know a lot about bridge preservation because I had not been exposed to the concept as much in design. My first job with the DOT was what they call bridge asset engineer. In a nutshell it means taking the best care of the bridges you manage and being a good steward of public resources. At that time, I did not know exactly what the best bridge preservation strategies were. So, getting involved with the Partnership, learning what bridge preservation means, being able to talk to bridge engineers who had knowledge and experience about it, helped me tremendously in my job.
Could you provide some additional background information about your professional career?
I have accepted the position of Chief Engineer at Indiana DOT on February 2019. Prior to that I was the Director of Bridge Design at Indiana DOT. For most of my career I have been in bridge design, bridge maintenance, bridge inspection, asset management. I graduated as an engineer 21 years ago from Purdue University.
Can you share something about your personal life? How do you do like spending your free time?
I love music. I am a musician who plays guitar and sings. This is what I spend a lot of my free time doing. I like a wide variety of music from jazz, to country, rock, pop and blues. The time that I spend playing music is very rewarding, because it allows me to feel free and creative.