Lawmakers requested $163M for pet projects even as they criticized MDOT spending

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Legislative leaders have requested more than $163 million for dozens of special transportation projects in their districts, a Mississippi Today analysis shows. 

About half of those requests received funding, sometimes pushing other projects deemed necessary to enhance public safety lower on the list, records show. 

A long standing practice in the Legislature, these earmark requests, made between 2012 and 2018, have continued while top lawmakers sharply criticized fiscal and operational management at the Mississippi Department of Transportation. Scrutiny over management of the agency has also resulted in attempts in recent years to strip the department of its spending authority.

These special requests from lawmakers are separate from the typical road-funding process, including allocations from MDOT’s roughly $1 billion annual budget, over which lawmakers have little legal control. Additionally, lawmakers include requests for specific projects in bond bills, but those projects are paid for with bond proceeds, not from MDOT’s regular budget.

When it comes to the special projects, MDOT’s internal evaluators deemed many of these projects unnecessary, records obtained through open-records requests show. In addition, fulfilling these requests often delayed other projects considered higher priority because of public safety considerations, department officials told Mississippi Today.

Among those projects, which came under scrutiny earlier this week, is a frontage road project that would connect a gated neighborhood where Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves lives in Rankin County to a nearby road with a traffic light.

County records show that state Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, also owns a house in the subdivision, but Harkins says that he no longer lives in the home. Reeves’ brother, Todd Reeves, also owns a home in an adjoining neighborhood, records show.

The $2 million frontage-road project – first reported Monday by Geoff Pender of The Clarion-Ledger – would draw state and federal funds, completing 2014 and 2015 special legislative requests to widen state Highway 25/Lakeland Drive.

MDOT

Melinda McGrath, executive director, Mississippi Department of Transportation

Melinda McGrath, executive director of MDOT, was traveling out of state Tuesday and unavailable for an interview. However, she told the Clarion-Ledger on Monday that her agency was “under pressure … from the Senate side” of the Legislature to construct the road to Reeves’ neighborhood.

Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Reeves, declined to make Reeves available for an interview about the frontage road, but told the Clarion-Ledger the city of Flowood consulted with MDOT to plan the project. She said special-project requests grew out of lawmakers’ frustration with how MDOT prioritizes projects in the state.

“When you have community leaders back home telling senators they can’t get their road needs addressed or that the agency isn’t listening, you’re going to have members of the Legislature make those local requests a priority for MDOT through the appropriations process,” Hipp said in a statement to Mississippi Today.

“At the end of the day, legislators have a constitutional responsibility to spend the people’s money. The Legislature directing agencies on how to allocate their appropriation isn’t new.”

Requests for comment from Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, about the earmark requests have not been returned.

Mississippi Today compiled a list of all 50 legislative project requests made since 2012 and asked MDOT whether the requested project was deemed necessary, whether the lawmakers’ request was granted, how much the project would cost and whether granting the request would delay higher priority safety projects.

Since 2012, MDOT spent at least $75 million for lawmakers’ projects alone. Many of the legislative requests since 2012 did not include specific cost estimates, meaning the total figure for legislative requests exceeds $163 million. Eleven of them bumped higher priority safety projects. 

Lawmakers’ earmark requests, for which MDOT did not provide information about who made them, vary in scope and size, such as:

• In 2013, 2014 and 2015, lawmakers asked MDOT to spend $150,000 a year “to conduct a study on monorail transportation in Tunica and DeSoto counties.” MDOT did not fund the project, responding to questions from Mississippi Today, because: “Locals are not interested.”

• In 2015, lawmakers asked MDOT to spend $10 million for the Highway 25/Lakeland Drive expansion project. This project included the phase to build the frontage road to Lt. Gov. Reeves’ neighborhood. MDOT chose to fund this project, spending $43.5 million to date.

• In 2015, lawmakers asked MDOT to pay $3 million to Lafayette County for costs of extending West Oxford Loop to College Hill Road as what is described in documents as a “local public agencies project.” The project is currently under construction.

• In 2015 and 2016, lawmakers asked MDOT to give $4.25 million to the quasigovernmental East Metropolitan Corridor Commission, which is constructing a thoroughfare that connects Lakeland Drive in Flowood to I-20 in Brandon. MDOT fulfilled both requests and helped the commission obtain federal funds. Through its response, MDOT told Mississippi Today spending money on the project delayed safety priority projects and had not been in MDOT’s spending plan.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves announces s major infrastructure proposal at a news conference on in spring 2018. He is joined by Finance chairman Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, and Transportation chairman Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland.

In addition to criticism, MDOT has been a target of several rounds of budget cuts in recent years, which has forced to the agency to focus exclusively on maintenance and not new construction.

McGrath, the agency’s executive director, broke down the dire situation to lawmakers in a legislative hearing in August 2017, saying that if current funding trends continue, the department would only be able to pay for a fraction of needed repairs in a given year.

But while legislators continued asking for MDOT for earmarks, top legislative legislators, with Reeves leading the charge, have stridently criticized the agency and its leadership and raised questions about efficiency in the department, which manages a budget overseen by the three-member elected Mississippi Transportation Commission.

In the fall of 2016, Reeves and Gunn hosted a series of legislative hearings to put MDOT’s spending under the microscope. They pointedly questioned MDOT leaders about agency travel, the size of its vehicle fleet and why specific projects remained uncompleted.

During the 2018 legislative session, Reeves pushed a sweeping infrastructure funding reform bill that would have broadly stripped MDOT’s spending authority of hundreds of millions of dollars per year; tempers flared among the rank-and-file in both the Senate and House over Reeves’ proposal, which ultimately failed.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, who formerly chaired the House Transportation Committee believes some of the legislative projects addressed legitimate needs, but is concerned how many of them bumped higher-need projects.

“The concern is that some of these rural areas might have been waiting eight, nine, 10 years. Now their project (which had been prioritized by MDOT experts) gets bumped,” Johnson said, referring to the projects. “I don’t think that is OK, especially considering the revenue restraints we have.”

Contributing: Bobby Harrison