Bulldog leadership shapes state’s transportation network

Standing at her office window, Melinda McGrath has a clear view of Interstate 55 passing through Jackson as it connects the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes. One of Mississippi’s busiest roads, it serves as an important part of the state’s economy.

To the east lies another important thoroughfare—Highway 25. Though not as highly trafficked as I-55, it still holds special significance for many at the Mississippi Department of Transportation. It connects the state’s capital to the Starkville home of Mississippi State University. That makes it—in the eyes of McGrath and her fellow MDOT Bulldogs—the “highway to God’s country.”

“There are enough Mississippi State alumni here that, yes, over the years the road to Starkville has become known as the highway to God’s country within the agency,” McGrath said with a laugh. “To us, it’s the best road in the state.”

Of course, holding a special place in their hearts doesn’t mean the highway gets any special attention. It makes up just one small part of the approximately 30,000 miles of pavement the agency maintains. That’s enough road to cover the distance from Mississippi to Alaska and back—twice. And as executive director of MDOT, McGrath is in charge of it all.

“Mississippi is a rural state, so most citizens rely on driving those roads to get where they need to be,” McGrath explained. “Even those who never get in a vehicle are tremendously impacted by this infrastructure because it allows us to send and receive goods and keep our economy going.
“It’s also important for job creation,” she continued. “One of the first things manufacturers look at when they’re considering relocating is whether or not they will have easy and reliable ingress and egress for raw materials and finished products.”

The 1985 civil engineering graduate has worked at MDOT for more than 25 years, serving in the top career position for the past five. She reports to three elected commissioners, including Mississippi State alumni Dick Hall, who has a bachelor’s in marketing, and Mike Tagert, who earned master’s degrees in plant pathology, and public policy and administration.

“There are enough Mississippi State alumni here that, yes, over the years the road to Starkville has become known as the highway to God’s country within the agency,” McGrath said with a laugh. “To us, it’s the best road in the state.”

On the MDOT payroll, McGrath has a team of approximately 3,400 individuals to help make sure folks in the Magnolia State can get from point A to point B, safely, reliably and in a reasonable amount of time. Among those are Bulldogs in prominent leadership positions, including Lisa Hancock, deputy executive director for administration, and John Head, human resources director.

Head explained that part of the reason for the large Maroon and White presence among the professionals at the agency is because it’s the state’s largest employer of engineers.

“We’re an engineering-oriented agency and the primary engineering school in the state is MSU; it’s the standard that other programs are measured by,” explained Head, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science, and public policy and administration, respectively.

He continued, “Plus, you have other professionals in a variety of areas you would expect at any large agency, like accounting or public relations, and many of them come from MSU as well.”

Lest anyone suspect institutional nepotism is at play, Head points out that the agency has talented employees from many universities in the state and region. But he said Mississippi State’s focus on producing graduates with practical experience in their fields gives Bulldogs a boost in the competitive job market.

“When I was recruiting at college fairs in the 1990s, you could tell Mississippi State put an emphasis on co-ops and internships that other universities didn’t,” Head recalled. “Mississippi State has a reputation for producing graduates who can go out and contribute immediately.”

 

Carrying their weight

Head said that in addition to necessary education and technical skills, the agency tries to find employees who are knowledgeable and excited about transportation infrastructure. And while that phrase might make some people’s eyes glaze over, he said it’s actually not hard to find candidates who understand its importance and want to make sure Mississippi’s transportation network serves the citizens and their tax dollars well.

“We look for applicants who have a strong work ethic and enthusiasm for the job,” Head said. “It’s also important that they’re not just looking out for themselves, but also want to make sure the agency is doing the best job it can.”

Looking at the scope of MDOT’s mission, it’s easy to see why it’s important to find dedicated employees. As primary overseer of the state’s transportation network, the agency not only maintains tens of thousands of miles of road, but also approximately 5,775 state-maintained bridges. It also supports 150 airports, nearly 2,900 miles of freight railroad, 69 public transit providers, 870 miles of inland waterways and 16 ports, which annually facilitate the movement of more than 45 million tons of cargo.

“People are accustomed to a reliable infrastructure that allows people and goods to flow freely around the state, and they understandably get upset when something slows that down,” McGrath said. “We take that seriously and do what we can to provide a high level of service to all of the infrastructure we manage.”

McGrath explained that to prioritize its work, the agency compiles a complete, in-depth assessment of the state’s pavements. To do this, a specially equipped van drives over every state maintained surface. A camera records everything associated with the roads, including the pavement, guardrails and signs, to document their condition, while on-board equipment is used to collect data on roadway cracking, rutting and structural failures.

“That’s how we develop our paving schedule,” McGrath explained. “We also inspect bridges and give them a structural rating and replacement index that considers impact to communities and commerce. All of this creates a very intricate, very large database that allows us to prioritize, statewide, everything that needs to be done. This enables us to do everything we can to maximize the resources we have.”

 

Paying for pavement

In her role as deputy executive director, Hancock oversees MDOT’s budget, which topped $1.1 billion last fiscal year. This total comes from a nearly even split of federal funds and state dollars, which include the agency’s portion of the state fuel tax. It’s her job to make sure these dollars are spent in accordance with all rules, regulations and in the best interest of the state.

Those budget dollars include what Hancock calls “pass throughs”—money dedicated for city or county infrastructure development administered through MDOT, so the agency can ensure all regulations are followed and project designs meet all requirements. Once these funds are distributed, the department is left with approximately $900 million for statewide projects and support—including enforcement, construction, maintenance, intermodal transportation and public transit, like the recently expanded Starkville-MSU Area Rapid Transit route to the Golden Triangle Regional Airport.

“The Office of Administrative Services is responsible for everything from budget preparation and financial reporting to asset management and project accounting,” explained Hancock, an accounting graduate. “We also try to promote a culture of stewardship and accountability to ensure people make responsible decisions about spending money.”

Hancock said she worries many people look at the agency’s overall budget and wonder why that’s not enough to fund all of the construction and maintenance needs in the state, but she explained the price tag for all 82 counties is more than most people realize.

Construction costs for a new non-interstate, four-lane highway average $10 million per mile—a more than 400 percent increase over the cost to build the same road a decade ago. Currently, just maintenance for a mile of existing highway costs $2,800 annually.

“The cost of building keeps going up so, like many of the surrounding states, we’re starting to be faced with not being able to adequately maintain the state system because there’s not enough money to make repairs at the optimal time,” McGrath said.

The tribulations of transportation

She explained that in the life of pavement, there is a window of time to complete routine repaving and maintenance to protect its underlying structure. After that, McGrath said it costs six to 10 times as much to repair that same section of road.

“If you miss the window, you start to see rutting in the road which tears up the soil underneath. We then have to do a lot more work to restore its integrity,” McGrath explained. “But there’s not enough money each year to hit everything at the optimal time, so we have to use patches and seals in the meantime.”

Mississippi also has unique geological issues that complicate road construction. Yazoo clay is found across much of the state, including the Jackson area. This much-maligned substance can swell to 400 times its original size when wet, causing any rigid material on top of it to crack or break from the pressure.

McGrath estimates that 40 percent of the state is affected by some type of active, clay-based earth. She said this causes a significant increase in construction costs as crews must remove as much as 6 to 8 feet of the clay, replacing it with select materials suitable for long-lasting pavement. Often, they must also install drains or retaining walls.

“It’s not an issue every state faces,” McGrath explained. “Tennessee, for instance, is able to build most of its roads on a solid rock foundation. It’s just one of the unique challenges to civil engineering in Mississippi.”

McGrath said Mississippi roads also are facing strain from increased traffic and heavy loads as manufacturing growth across the Southeast has spurred a rise in cargo coming into and out of ports along the Gulf Coast or being trucked to and from the East and West coasts.

“Many of our roads are starting to reach maximum capacity,” McGrath said. “That doesn’t mean it’s constant gridlock, but at peak hours they can be pretty congested. And that amount of traffic, plus the increased weight of freight vehicles, which often exceeds the design capacity for the roads and bridges, means parts of our network are wearing out more quickly than expected.”

Still, despite these challenges, Mississippi’s transportation network rates a letter grade higher than the country’s overall D rating in the most recent American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report card. That organization estimates the country needs $3.6 trillion of infrastructure investment by 2020 to keep up with aging structures, increasing demands and changing needs.

 

Paving the way for future transportation needs

McGrath predicts that the future of transportation will look different than the infrastructure growth of the past. With that in mind, MDOT funds the Mississippi Transportation Research Center at Mississippi State University to develop novel solutions to traffic woes.

Under the direction of Dennis Truax, the James T. White endowed chair and department head of civil and environmental engineering, the center is helping shape the next generation of transportation infrastructure by developing sustainable highway materials, advanced traffic control systems and optimized construction delivery approaches.

McGrath said building more and more roads isn’t necessarily the solution to ease traffic congestion or weight-strain.

“Look at I-55,” she said. “It’s busy, but it’s only really congested during rush hours. Is it worth the substantial investment to add more lanes that are only necessary four hours a day, five days a week?

“We can’t keep building more lanes,” she continued. “We have to look to other solutions that make sense for the problems we’re facing.”

She said one option is increasing the use of transit services such as passenger rail in the state—for instance re-establishing lines to metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Chicago. McGrath said she also believes there will be increased use of freight rail in the future.

“It’s one of the safest ways to move materials,” she explained. “Rail allows you to move heavier loads and move more quickly. Plus, it’s much cheaper to build a section of rail than road.”

McGrath also said that people in the transportation infrastructure industry have to now consider the implications of introducing driverless cars to the roadways. She explained that in addition to special legislation to dictate how these vehicles can operate, infrastructure updates are needed to make it safe for these vehicles on American roads.

“Driverless cars have the potential to save lives by reducing speed and reducing accidents, so long term I think the day is coming when we’ll see them on the roads and possibly in the air,” McGrath explained.

She said these are just some of the things on the horizon for transportation infrastructure. And no matter what happens, there will be a pack of Bulldogs at Mississippi’s leading transportation organization to make sure the roads of the Hospitality State stay hospitable—especially those roads leading to “God’s country.”

Southern Horizons

Mississippi State University recently broke ground on a multimillion-dollar project to make campus more accessible to visitors from points south.
Called The South Gateway in the university’s master plan, the $18.7 million endeavor will create a new campus entry road that bypasses MSU’s South Farm to connect Poor House Road, near the Mississippi Horse Park, to Blackjack Road, which runs adjacent to campus. This will allow visitors arriving via Highway 25 to reach campus without traveling through the center of Starkville.

The new entrance will form a prominent part of a developing “green corridor,” which will create a landscaped, pedestrian-friendly area on the south side of campus, reminiscent of the area around Chadwick Lake on campus’s northern side.

“Mississippi State University is extremely pleased that, after many years of planning, the new South Entrance Road is soon to be a reality," said Amy Tuck, vice president for campus services. “It’s a testament to Dr. Keenum’s leadership and our federal and state partners.”

The Mississippi Department of Transportation is administering $15.2 million of federal funds for the project. The university is providing the remaining $3.5 million to see the project to completion.

Tuck said the university sees this as a worthwhile investment in the university’s future as it expands to accommodate the changing needs of the campus community.

“The South Entrance Road will provide an additional artery for our community to assist in the distribution of traffic flow,“ Tuck explained. “It will not only serve as a gateway to campus and help showcase our beautiful land-grant institution, but also improve the overall traffic flow on campus.”

By Susan Lassetter | Photos by Russ Houston | Video by David Garraway