Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall praised the work of Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath, who has found herself in the midst of controversy after saying Senate pressure led to the decision to construct a frontage road off busy Lakeland Drive in Rankin County to accommodate residents in a neighborhood where Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves lives.

“Melinda McGrath does a super job,” Hall said. “I have been in state government for a long time, and she is as professional as I have ever dealt with. If she makes a recommendation, I know she believes it is the right thing to do.”

McGrath is answerable to the three-member elected Transportation Commission, which is chaired by Hall.

As lieutenant governor, Reeves presides over the Senate. Earlier this week Reeves, who has denied being involved in efforts to have the $2 million road built from his neighborhood to a traffic light, sent a letter to McGrath asking her to detail examples where MDOT staff felt pressured – as she described in a Jackson Clarion Ledger article – to construct the frontage road. McGrath has yet to respond to the request.

MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath

While Hall praised McGrath, he took responsibility for the decision to build the road and said he was not contacted by Reeves about the project. But after the story appeared in the Clarion Ledger detailing McGrath’s comments and revealing emails indicating efforts by the neighborhood association to have the road built and the monitoring of the project by Reeves’ office, Hall opted to put the project on hold and re-evaluate the need for the road.

Apparently, earlier in the process, members of the MDOT staff questioned the need of the road from two gated communities containing less than 150 households to a traffic light at a nearby shopping center west of the neighborhoods. MDOT staff suggested a U turn off Lakeland to solve the problem for the neighborhood residents of turning left at the intersection. The neighborhood association and Flowood mayor opposed the less expensive U turn.

“I never had anything come to my desk saying the staff recommends not to build the frontage road and to do something else. It just made sense to me,” Hall said. “There was a lot of conversation about different options.”

At the time Hall thought the road was needed for safety reasons. But he said the recently completed widening of Lakeland Drive in the area from four to six lanes actually makes it easier for the residents of the two neighborhoods to turn left because traffic is more spread out.

“Now in 18-20 years we may wish we had built that frontage road when traffic is bumper to bumper,” Hall said.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.