MDOT director: Reeves staff used ‘political authority’ to keep frontage road project on time

Published 12:19 pm Thursday, July 26, 2018

From Mississippi Today

JACKSON — Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath, in a letter to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, did not refute her claim that Senate pressure played a role in the decision to construct a $2 million frontage road from a neighborhood where Reeves lives to a nearby traffic light.

McGrath wrote the letter in response to a request from Reeves for her to document instances of undue pressure from the Legislature.

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In the letter, which was released Thursday, she wrote: “The office of lieutenant governor’s ongoing interest in the Highway 25/Lakeland Drive widening project assigned heightened importance and priority to this project.

“In the course of our regular project updates, your staff was made aware of utility delays that had the potential of slowing the construction schedule. Your staff took the highly unusual step of communicating directly with utility providers and worked to resolve various issues to keep the project on schedule – using political authority that MDOT does not possess.”

She went on to write, “as you know, undocumented verbal conversations may very quickly turn into ‘she said, he said’  scenario – otherwise known as hearsay. The questions posed by your letter have caused the Department to consider additions to ur documentation policy to ensure all information requests are captured.”

The frontage road project was the final phase of a $46 million widening of Highway 25/Lakeland Drive.

In 2015, McGrath wrote that the Legislature mandated that MDOT bypass its normal construction/maintenance process to widen a section of Lakeland Drive in Rankin County from four to six lanes without providing any additional funds.

“The legislative mandate forced MDOT to divert funding ($43 million) and significantly delay multiple road and bridge preservation projects,” she wrote.

After McGrath said earlier this month that “political pressure” from the Senate led to the decision of MDOT to commit to constructing the frontage road, Reeves sent a letter to McGrath on July 11 imploring her to provide evidence that anyone in the Senate tried to influence the agency to construct the frontage road.

Reeves denies any involvement in the decision to construct the frontage road from his subdivision to a traffic light to provide easier access to busy Lakeland Drive in Rankin County.

“I am not aware of any undue influence on that particular project,” Reeves countered July 11 to members of the media during a news conference in a Senate committee room.

As of publication of this story, Reeves has a scheduled a press conference for Thursday morning.

Reeves’ denial of his involvement was bolstered the same day, when Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall said at a news conference that he had not been in contact with any legislator nor with Reeves about the frontage road. Hall said he made the decision to construct the frontage road for safety reasons.

The frontage road would be located between two gated neighborhoods, consisting of fewer than 150 homes, to a red light at a shopping center to make it easier for the residents to turn left back toward Jackson. No other businesses or neighborhoods would benefit from the frontage road.

Hall announced he was postponing the project, which was set to be bid out for construction later this month. He said he wanted to re-assess whether the project is needed because of safety concerns. Plus, he acknowledged that media reports influenced his decision to postpone it.