Mississippi DOT Executive Director McGrath Focuses on Improving Efficiency and Funding Needed Projects
During her tenure as Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), Melinda McGrath has confronted challenges ranging from controversy surrounding the department's operations to insufficient funding for needed programs, but has made great strides in both improving MDOT's efficiency and in getting significant road projects underway. Through it all - in a role where she oversees 3,000-plus employees and a transportation infrastructure that includes roadways and bridges, air, rail, and ports - her lifelong connection to the construction industry has served her well.
Born and raised in Columbus, Mississippi, McGrath was familiar with jobsites from early childhood. Her late father, Bill Littlejohn, was a vertical contractor who worked on smaller commercial buildings. "My mother died when I was young, so my father took my brother and me with him on jobs," McGrath relates.
"He liked rehab projects, and loved old bricks. My brother and I had to help clean the bricks. We were paid a penny a brick. We always worked with our father to some degree while we were growing up, especially during the summers. I learned how to do things like read plans and do estimates. I always loved being around construction. It was a very comfortable field for me."
McGrath says she also enjoyed music, and learned to play several instruments. "But my father told me I needed to go to college and pick a degree in something I could make a living with," she recalls. "And it had to be in the math or science areas. Partly because I was always fascinated with interchange design, I chose to get my degree in civil engineering."
Just a month after receiving her Bachelor of Science in civil engineering degree from Mississippi State University, McGrath started to work with MDOT, in the Bridge Division. Only about a year later, however, she left to pursue mission work in New York City. Eventually she returned to Mississippi, at first to manage beauty salons and later a bookstore. "But after getting married and then having my first child, I decided it was time for me to really get back to work, and I returned to MDOT in 1991." McGrath and husband Hoyt, an electrical engineer, now live in Clinton. They have three children and two grandchildren.
Over the next few years, McGrath held several positions at MDOT, including Project Engineer in the northern and southern districts, District Area Engineer over six coastal counties, and Assistant Chief Engineer-Field Operations. It was in this position that she spent what she describes as "a very difficult, but rewarding" time in her career - after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. McGrath oversaw $1 billion in hurricane emergency work. "I was already very familiar with the roads and bridges in the area, and this was a big help to me during all the reconstruction."
McGrath was one of only two women in the Civil Engineering program at Mississippi State when she attended the university, and she is the first woman to hold the Executive Director's position at MDOT. "This never worried me," she states. "Growing up the way I did, working with my dad, it just felt natural. The idea that I was a woman in a man's world never crossed my mind."
Indeed, McGrath sees advantages in being a woman in her position. "I think one of the biggest mistakes supervisors make is trying to be "˜buddies' with their staff. Of course you want to create an atmosphere of strong teamwork and communication, but trying to be buddies with your employees - I've never seen that work well. So, being a female managing a lot of men has actually been a positive, since being invited along for things like fishing trips and such never comes up."
Dealing With Insufficient Funding
Asked about the status of Mississippi roads and bridges, McGrath is candid in her response. "Our roads today are in fairly good shape. But each year, because we cannot get enough funding to address our aging infrastructure, we are falling behind. My department oversees approximately 27,000 lane miles of road; of that, over 11,000 lane miles need significant maintenance. Additionally, we have 5,777 bridges; over 700 of them need to be replaced, and 200 are posted.
"During the last legislative session, our legislators did work to address these needs, and there were a couple of bills which remained active until the end of the session. MDOT's role is to explain the needs, and I am hopeful that during this last legislative session we were able to open a lot of eyes as to where things stand and what our needs are."
Even with the funding struggles, MDOT has been able to address some major needs in recent years. During the 2015 legislative session, the department received an additional $150 million for bridge work, a significant need in a mostly rural and agricultural state. McGrath cites Highway 6, which runs from Clarksdale in Coahoma County to Batesville in Panola County, as an example.
"Highway 6 has 14 posted bridges, along a route which is used by numerous farms and gins," she explains. "You can't just repair or replace one bridge, you have to address the conditions of all of them. We are utilizing $85 million of the additional funding for Highway 6, and the rest of the funding will be going to bridges on similar agricultural routes. The legislators realized that our farmers needed relief, and this additional funding is really helping the Mississippi Delta."
Among current MDOT projects, much of the work is focused around I-269, an outer beltway around the Memphis metropolitan area (and ultimately part of the planned I-69 from Canada to Mexico); in Mississippi, 22 miles of I-269 are under construction. Adjacent to I-269 and U.S. Highway 72 is the new Memphis Regional Intermodal Facility built by the Norfolk Southern Railroad.
"The entire area there is really growing rapidly because of the intermodal facility," McGrath comments. "The final 4-lane section of Highway 72 in Marshall County is underway, and a new interchange is under construction to ease traffic congestion around the facility. This project also includes a spur for traffic to all the warehouse space springing up. This is a great example of how transportation capacities are the backbone of our economy."
Improving the Department's Image
Certainly one of McGrath's major accomplishments has been improving the public perception of MDOT. At the time of her appointment, the department faced a lot of criticism about how projects were prioritized, with much negative press about controversial purchases, tension among department staff, and conflicts with state legislators.
She comments, "The Transportation Commission and I set out to work with legislators to streamline MDOT operations and improve the department's efficiency. We established a Maintenance Management Program, which operates similar to private sector businesses. It allows us to clearly keep track of what our crews are doing and what the costs are, and helps us to determine if these are things we should keep doing ourselves or farm out. We have decreased our administrative costs as well, and reduced our purchase of right-of-way staff to reflect the reduction in land acquisitions due to the shift in transportation funding from new capacity projects to system preservation."
Asked about her goals for MDOT going forward, McGrath says, "Job one is safety for the public, the workers and the moving of goods. Beyond that, one of my biggest goals is to ensure that our entire staff understands the importance of transportation to the economy, and the importance of their individual efforts."
"In years past, it was an honorable profession to be a public servant," she reflects. "But over the years people seem to have begun looking down on government employees. I continue to be an advocate for public service, and want to make the perception of it an honorable one again.
"Technology has changed so much in the 30 years since our last major transportation bill in 1987," she continues. "The way we work, travel, and do most everything has changed dramatically. I want to ensure that we spend our transportation dollars and establish new policies in ways that meet those changing demands. Our staff can be instrumental in meeting these challenges, and I will continue to make sure they have opportunities for continuing education. I don't want them to ever limit their possibilities. I want them to always keep learning, or we will fall behind."