Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath seems to be saying in a July 25 letter that the decision to build the frontage road was linked to the Lakeland Drive widening project, which was among a group of earmarks that led to “the wrangling” and the ensuing special session in 2014.

The genesis of the project that led to the controversial decision to build a frontage road from two gated neighborhoods in Flowood to a nearby shopping center was first considered in the 2014 regular session and passed a few days later in a special session, according to Mississippi Department of Transportation Commissioner Melinda McGrath.

In a letter to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, McGrath, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, wrote, “You and/or your staff as well as other entities were informed of the safety options under consideration, e.g. traffic signals, J-turn and frontage road. Since the addition of a traffic signal was not a viable solution from an engineering (safety and mobility) standpoint and because of legislative wrangling over the Lakeland Drive expansion project within our FY2015 appropriation bill that required a special legislative session to resolve, the frontage road was pursued.”

The planned $2 million frontage road, which has since been postponed, was controversial at least in part because Reeves lives in one of the two neighborhoods that would have been provided easier access to Lakeland Drive via the frontage road. In total, there are less than 150 households in the two neighborhoods. McGrath said earlier this summer political pressure from the Senate played a role in MDOT’s decision to construct the frontage road.

Reeves has maintained that the expansion of Lakeland Drive in the area from four to six lanes, which McGrath referenced in the letter, and the frontage road were two separate projects. He has described himself as “a champion” of the widening of Lakeland Drive, but said he played no role in the frontage road decision.

Emails show various people, Flowood officials and residents of the neighborhoods, were advocating for the frontage road opposed to the less expensive J-turn. Both were designed to make it easier for neighborhood residents to turn left onto Lakeland. McGrath wrote a letter to Reeves, at his request, detailing the alleged political pressure.

McGrath has refused to comment further on the controversy. But in the July 25 letter to Reeves, she seems to be saying that the decision to build the frontage road was linked to the Lakeland Drive widening project, which was among a group of earmarks that led to “the wrangling” and the ensuing special session in 2014.

Reeves claims vindication in road controversy; MDOT head McGrath maintains politics at play

During a recent news conference, Reeves said it is unfair to say political pressure from the Senate led to the decision to six-lane about five miles of busy Lakeland Drive in Rankin County around the Dogwood shopping center.

“While she wanted someone to believe this (widening Lakeland Drive) was political pressure by the Senate, the fact is we only enact laws in Mississippi with the vote of both chambers,” Reeves said.

Still, based on the events that occurred in the 2014 regular session, it is obvious that the Lakeland Drive project was being driven, for better of worse, by the Senate where Reeves presides.

At the end of the regular session, the House, led by then-Transportation Chair Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, opted by a 121-1 vote to kill the MDOT appropriations because of what Johnson described as projects to help a few in the Senate while there were hundreds of millions of dollars in needed bridge repairs throughout the state. The widening of Lakeland Drive was one of those Senate-inserted projects.

“I am getting ready to give it all to three or four people in the Senate, I don’t think that is right,” Johnson said in asking members to reject the compromise.

In special session the earmarked projects, including the Lakeland Drive widening project, remained in the bill. But in addition, there was an agreement to provide an additional $32 million to go to the counties for bridge repairs.

Reeves still maintains the Lakeland Drive project was needed because of the traffic count and ongoing growth in the area. He pointed out Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall touted the Lakeland Drive widening project.

In her letter, McGrath does not deny the merits of the Lakeland Drive widening project, but pointed out because of inadequate funding MDOT has prioritized preservation over new construction and the Lakeland project bypassed that priority. In addition, McGrath said the Lakeland project bypassed the Vision 21 process where MDOT uses “national traffic engineering and roadway design standards which incorporate crash statistics and other safety metrics to prioritize projects statewide based on greatest need and available funding.”

At any rate, the Lakeland Drive widening project was completed late in 2017, but the ensuing $2 million frontage road, which was set to go to bids this summer, is postponed indefinitely.

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.