In August 2017, a frustrated attorney for the Mississippi Department of Transportation fired off an email to the head of a homeowners’ association in Rankin County.
After months of negotiating over acquiring property for a frontage road near Lakeland Drive, MDOT officials knew the project was on the brink of collapsing because the agency and the neighborhood association couldn’t agree on terms for the land needed to build the road.
“MDOT instructed me to point out that this project is for the benefit solely of the Oakridge homeowners and expeditious execution … would be appreciated,” Don McLemore, a lawyer working on contract with the transportation department, wrote to association president Walter Brand in a message on which several other transportation employees were copied.
The project the men were discussing is a $2 million frontage road connecting two gated neighborhoods in Flowood where Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and other Republican elected officials live and own property to provide easier access to the busy state U.S. 25/Lakeland Drive.
The project sparked a maelstrom of controversy when Melinda McGrath, the head of the transportation department, told the Clarion Ledger that plans for the road resulted not from need but from “political pressure” from the state Senate, where Reeves, a Republican, presides. The media coverage prompted Reeves to ask McGrath for proof her agency was pressured and Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat and political rival of Reeves, to launch an investigation. Dick Hall, the head of the state transportation commission, has praised McGrath and postponed the project for further review.
McGrath, responding in a letter to Reeves, stood by her assertion that officials in her department believed Reeves’ office exerted “political authority” to move the project along. Reeves, at a Capitol press conference, claimed vindication in saying the letter contained no proof that MDOT was coerced into moving forward with the road work.
In addition to emphatic denials from Reeves, who declined a one-on-one interview request through his spokeswoman, the homeowners’ association president also refutes assertions that the group was behind the push.
Walter Brand, the president of the Oakridge Property Owners’ Association, told Mississippi Today that MDOT and Flowood city officials said the purpose of the frontage road project was to provide residents with access to a traffic light.
“The concern expressed to us by Alderman (Kirk) McDaniel and by MDOT was to get us to a traffic light. That’s what we understood the purpose of the road to be,” Brand said in a recent telephone interview. “The notion, as I’ve seen it written, that somehow we had the ability to dictate anything to anybody is just wrong.”
The email exchange between the transportation employees and the Oakridge Property Owners’ Association is included in a trove of nearly 30,000 emails over a four-and-a-half year period, obtained by Mississippi Today through several public records requests.
The emails, provided by both the transportation department and the city of Flowood, provide new insight into roles several elected officials played in the planning of the frontage road project. They also shed light on how the project almost came to fruition despite several attempts by MDOT to shelve it as well as MDOT’s internal analyses showing the project was unnecessary to improve public safety.
One year before the controversy came to a head, Don McLemore’s email drew lament from MDOT employees, including Trudi Loflin, the department’s director of right-of-way acquisition, who wrote: “I thought he (McLemore) was going to find a subtle way to get the point across…”
Siding with Loflin, another MDOT official, Don Drake, replied to the thread: “John is my witness… he (McLemore) was told to present that in a ‘diplomatic’ way and not in writing. It was suggested he remind the attorney – verbally – that the frontage road project would basically be utilized by a small group and not the public at large. The intention was specifically not to name the ‘small’ group… In the future I will not provide any further verbal instructions to Mr. McLemore.”
The question of safety disputed
From the time the Lakeland Drive expansion was first granted state funding in 2014 to when construction began in October 2015, the frontage road was not included in the project. MDOT added the frontage road as the final phase of a larger widening project of Lakeland Drive.
Documents show MDOT added the frontage road phase to the widening project in September of 2016, about one year after construction began on the widening. Early talks about the frontage road started as early as 2013, long before plans were underway to widen U.S. 25/Lakeland Drive in Flowood.
Plans for the $2 million frontage road phase of the project, which would have benefited two Flowood gated neighborhoods — Oakridge Trail and Dogwood Place — called for 80 percent funding from the Federal Highway Administration. The federal agency granted the request to add the frontage road to the widening project in September 2016. The state, through MDOT, was to fund the rest of the project.
Officials from Flowood and residents in the neighborhoods consistently argued in emails from 2014 to 2017 that the frontage road was needed to improve public safety.
“I expressed to the (Flowood Board of Aldermen) last night the help and concern the city has shown for the safety of folks in the neighborhoods in trying to work out a solution and they all expressed appreciation,” Kirk McDaniel, a Flowood alderman and resident of Dogwood Place, wrote in October 2015. “It really is a safety issue for folks, especially those in their 70s and 80s, and the last thing any of us wants is to attend a funeral for a neighbor killed while trying to cross the road.”
Gary Rhoads, Flowood’s mayor and a power player in Rankin County Republican political circles, echoed McDaniel in a subsequent email nearly 18 months later.
“We remain concerned that this (the widening of Lakeland Drive from four lanes to six lanes) will be an extremely dangerous situation that could result in injury or death to our citizens,” Rhoads wrote to McGrath in June 2017.
Neither Rhoads nor McDaniel responded to emails and phone calls requesting an interview for this story.
However, these statements stood in contrast to MDOT’s internal analysis, showing that neither crash data nor traffic signal studies concluded that any traffic easement project was necessary for the two neighborhoods, which MDOT officials noted in several emails.
James Sullivan, an MDOT state traffic engineer, provided data in January 2016 to employees showing traffic signals at the neighborhood’s intersection were not warranted. Wes Dean, MDOT assistant chief engineer, forwarded the data to McGrath, who then asked her assistant to print the information.
“Attached are the signal warrant analyses for the two intersections on Hwy 25,” Sullivan wrote on Jan. 26, 2016. “None of these, either straight up or combined, meet a signal warrant.”
In engineering terms, a warrant refers to a condition that an intersection meets in order to justify installing a traffic signal.
Hall himself was involved in the planning of the frontage road project, meeting several times with city of Flowood officials about the project and communicating directly with neighborhood residents at least twice between 2015 and 2017 to provide status updates ahead of neighborhood association meetings.
On Sept. 15, 2016, Dogwood Place resident Bill Barham wrote to Hall: “Good morning Sir. Need an update before HOA meeting Tuesday evening.”
“Here is the situation,” Hall replied. “We plan to have necessary right of way in hand by year end. We hope to get utilities moved by year end. Our plans are to receive bids soon enough in 2017 to allow construction to begin next summer. I want to caution everyone that this is an optimistic schedule but we are going to try hard to make it work.”
A top adviser to Commissioner Dick Hall, too, knew that safety was no major concern for the neighborhoods’ intersection with Lakeland Drive.
Tim Lawrence, a resident of Dogwood Place subdivision, sent an email on Sept. 22, 2015, to Craig Carter, Commissioner Dick Hall’s assistant at the time. Lawrence wrote: “With the increase in traffic on Lakeland Drive/Hwy 25, it’s becoming more and more difficult for us to exit our neighborhood.”
Carter replied: “The 6-lane project will help considerably by 1) shortening the queue that currently backs up from the Dogwood Festival signal and 2) providing longer and more frequent gaps along MS25 for both directions of travel. There are no roadway modifications that we can recommend this close to the construction letting.”
Public vs. private interests
Months into the planning the specific frontage road, the project hit a snag in December 2016: MDOT learned that the Oakridge Property Owners’ Association might not donate its land to the state for right of way. This sent MDOT and city of Flowood officials scurrying to lock down the details so the department could accept bids on the project by February 2017.
Kirk McDaniel, the Flowood alderman, wrote McGrath an email on Dec. 8, 2016, explaining the problem.
“There was some confusion over MDOT asking them for the .18 acres to be donated because they had heard MDOT was paying Dogwood (Property Owner’s Association) for some other land,” McDaniel wrote.
“I talked with board member Allen McDaniel,” he continued, referring to the former president of the Oakridge Property Owners’ Association, “at some length about the matter and he assured me Oakridge wanted to work with MDOT and understood the value of the road to their subdivision.”
Afterwards, McLemore, the attorney representing MDOT, informed stakeholders in a January 2017 email that the project was being cancelled “due to the determination it is not in the public interest at the present time.” McLemore, who received just over $25,000 for legal services he provided to the state on the project, declined to be interviewed for this story.
The Oakridge Property Owners’ Association, in a subsequent effort to revive the project, called a special meeting on March 17, 2017, and agreed to send MDOT a counter offer ensuring that any land donation would follow their own neighborhood covenants and bylaws.
One of the conditions Oakridge requested of MDOT was that the frontage road be one-way, ensuring the road could only be utilized by those exiting the neighborhood.
“Many of homeowners understandably didn’t want a public intersection right outside our exit from our neighborhood,” Brand, the association president, told Mississippi Today. “That was one of the things discussed and brought up at our meeting. We, as a board, had an obligation in our counter response to MDOT to make our concerns known.”
That request, along with five others that the homeowners made, met disapproval at the transportation department. In response, MDOT project director Amy Mood tabled negotiations “until Legal can review it,” according to a March 30, 2017, email.
MDOT, through its attorney, McLemore, told stakeholders for a second time that the project was dead on June 13, 2017, informing them the department was “not going forward with the Frontage Road Project along the southside of Highway 25.”
A meeting of influencers, then a resurrection
In February 2016 several MDOT and Flowood officials met at the Jackson office of transportation Commissioner Dick Hall “to discuss access to Lakeland Drive from Dogwood and Oakridge subdivision,” an email from Garry Miller, Flowood’s public works director, shows.
Attending the meeting were Miller, MDOT director Melinda McGrath, MDOT project director Amy Mood, Flowood city attorney Lem Adams as well as several elected officials: Commissioner Hall, Mayor Rhoads and McDaniel, the alderman.
The meeting represented the starting point for what would turn out to be more than two years of intensive planning for the frontage road project.
“Looks like the frontage road connecting Dogwood Festival and Dogwood Place has been resurrected,” an MDOT design engineer who worked on the frontage road project for the duration of its planning, wrote to several MDOT engineers two days after the meeting of top officials.
The engineer continued: “We’ve been asked to look at this from an operations and a cost perspective. I know you will not like what you see in the attached,” referring to an analysis showing that relatively little traffic flows through the intersection, “but I guess the big question is will it function.”
Emails show that McGrath attended at least five meetings with city of Flowood officials about the project between 2016 and 2018. MDOT officials fostered a close working relationship with city of Flowood officials during the time period, regularly offering to participate in meetings and phone calls about the project.
Despite the close involvement of Flowood leaders, McGrath maintained that pressure from the Senate not Flowood drove the department’s decision proceed with the frontage road, telling the Clarion-Ledger earlier this month: “That frontage road is not being built because the mayor or city requested it. We do not feel any pressure to build it because the mayor would say so.”
The thousands of emails Mississippi Today obtained include just one mention of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. That email, sent from one MDOT employee to two others working on the frontage road project, acknowledged the lieutenant governor lived in the neighborhood.
Brand, the Oakridge association president, told Mississippi Today that he did not have conversations with Reeves or Republican state Sen. Josh Harkins, who owns property in Oakridge, about the frontage road project.
“I have never had any communication with Lt. Gov. Reeves about this frontage road project,” Brand said. “Lt. Gov. Reeves has not, to my knowledge, influenced or attempted to influence any Oakridge decision or vote regarding this project.”
One early proposal of a state-funded road benefiting the neighborhoods could have financially benefited state Sen. Josh Harkins, who owns a home and property in the Oakridge subdivision. Harkins no longer lives in the neighborhood, which is not in his district, he told Mississippi Today. Harkins said he nor Reeves asked for the road, but can “see where safety is a concern” with traffic moving faster on Lakeland.
In October 2015, the city of Flowood commissioned plans for a new connector road that would have linked Oakridge Trail to Dogwood Place. The proposed road would have sliced through Harkins’ land and connected the neighborhoods to a new traffic signal that would have been installed at Lakeland Drive to the east.
The plan would have required MDOT to purchase property, including a portion Harkins owns, to construct the new connector road.
After reviewing those plans, Flowood Attorney Lem Adams wrote to Miller, the public works director, Mayor Rhoads and Alderman McDaniel: “My immediate concern is based upon my assumption that the roadway would be gated/private for the sole use by the residents of Dogwood and Oakridge and NOT a public road. The expenditure of public funds for private use may be problematic.”
Harkins’ only direct communication with any official about the project, according to documents obtained from the city of Flowood through a public-records request, was an email in which he forwarded to Miller an image of his tract of land. No purchase of Harkins’ property ever took place, according to property records.
McDaniel, the Flowood alderman who lives on the Dogwood Place side of the neighborhood, strongly pushed the frontage road, according to the emails.
McDaniel, who attended at least 10 meetings between 2016 and 2018 with stakeholders, served as a liaison for MDOT, the city of Flowood, and the two neighborhood associations. He also kept direct access to MDOT project engineers and regularly communicated with MDOT and Flowood officials.
“Do you think we can meet with someone to ask them to work with us?” Mayor Rhoads sent McDaniel in December of 2016 when it became apparent the Oakridge Property Owners’ Association might not donate land to MDOT. “I see no value to homeowners association to not donate.”
In June of 2017, when the project appeared to again have stalled and faced a short window to be included as part of the Lakeland Drive widening project, McDaniel sent Brand a letter indicating that MDOT wanted to continue the project but could not unless Oakridge donated its parcel of land to MDOT.
“Without coming out and saying it, I believe MDOT sees this as a unique and particular benefit to our neighborhoods and especially Oakridge since you have no other outlet,” McDaniel wrote on June 14, 2017. “Time is of the essence because the main construction (widening of Lakeland Drive) is drawing to a close. Our window of opportunity is getting smaller.”
Eventually, efforts to obtain the land were successful, with the Oakridge association donating the property for frontage road. The transportation department purchased two other parcels of land for the project for $322,721, documents show.
Nonetheless, the future of the project remained imperiled as shown in records that would also foreshadow the coming controversy.
“What are the rumors on the project?” Randy Wedgeworth, an MDOT inspector wrote in March 2018, to Colby Willis Kimmel, a lead MDOT designer on the frontage road project.
“I really don’t know…… This is all I have,” Kimmel replied.
“I heard Melinda,” Wedgeworth replied, referring to the agency’s executive director.
“That she was stopping it?,” Kimmel responded.
Mississippi Today is investigating the role of politics in infrastructure decisions. If you have more information on this or other projects around the state, let us know with an email or encrypted message.