Female chiefs of Arkansas, Mississippi highway agencies discuss COVID, tell their stories

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,641 views 

ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor, MSDOT Director Melinda McGrath, and Garver's Jerry Holder.

When traffic volumes plummeted early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Arkansas Department of Transportation Director Lorie Tudor thought ARDOT might take a $300 million hit to its highway revenues. But traffic quickly returned and, with it, the fuel tax revenues that help pay for the state’s roadways.

Tudor discussed the pandemic and told her personal story alongside her counterpart, Melinda McGrath, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, during an online seminar hosted by Women in Transportation on Thursday (Nov. 19).

The event was broadcast from the Women’s City Club in Little Rock and moderated by Jerry Holder, director of transportation for Garver, an Arkansas-based engineering firm.

Tudor estimated that traffic volumes dropped 40% in April, which left ARDOT officials wondering about that possible $300 million shortfall. But then traffic volume began increasing and has returned to pre-COVID levels, she said. As a result, the department expects to lose about $10 million in revenues.

ARDOT changed many of its operations in response to the pandemic, such as holding virtual meetings and communicating electronically. Tudor expects a hybrid system to exist when the pandemic ends.

“We didn’t change that much as far as the services we provide to the public, but internally there’s been a lot of changes, and I don’t see those going away,” she said.

McGrath said her state saw a $20-$30 million dip for two months, and then traffic returned in July. A system that had already been developed to monitor the productivity of designers proved useful.

“A lot of our designers are more productive at home than they were at work,” she said. “And when we asked them why, they said, ‘Well because people like you don’t come by and bother me.’”

Tudor started her career in an entry-level position without a collage degree but advanced through hard work and with the support of mentors who believed in her.

She said she started working at what is now ARDOT at age 20 after quitting college, where she unsuccessfully had sought a nursing degree. She worked at ARDOT for 13 years and rose as far as she could without a degree. When a second chance to go to school arose when she was about 33 years old, she considered completing her nursing degree but instead became an engineer like her co-workers.

“The day I walked out, I knew I was fixing to be the master of my future,” she said. “I felt like the whole world was lifted off my shoulders.”

She earned her degree and returned to the department to a job paying less than the one she had quit. Scott Bennett, who later would serve as ARDOT director, was the one who hired her back.

“I moved up, and I passed my (professional engineer exam), and then I stalled out, and I was in one position for nine years in a little bitty office with no windows with bad ventilation,” she said. “I got all the air-conditioning. Everyone was burning up outside. I was in there freezing to death for nine years. It was hard work, but that’s when I paid my dues.”

Tudor moved up the ranks to division head, assistant chief engineer of planning, deputy director and chief operating officer. When Bennett retired this year, he recommended the Arkansas Highway Commission select her as director.

“I will say that my philosophy has always been, give it all I’ve got,” she said. “Just give it all you’ve got. Don’t worry about what someone’s doing next to you. Are they pulling their load? I don’t care. Don’t really care. I’m just going to pull my load, and if they don’t pull theirs, I’ll grab it and pull it as well. Because I’m determined that I’m going to make it and do the best job I can.”

Across the Mississippi River, McGrath was taking a somewhat more traditional path. The daughter of a vertical contractor, she was unsure about her major before starting classes at Mississippi State University. Her dad told her she had two weeks to decide on a major, but it couldn’t be in liberal arts.

That weekend, she and three friends went to Six Flags Over Georgia, and when her friends asked her about her major, she told them she liked the bridges under which they had been driving.

“And they said, ‘Well, you need to go major in civil engineering,’” she said. “I promise you that’s how that happened. I had no clue what a civil engineer did other than roads and bridges.”

The economy was mired in a recession when she graduated in 1985, and she had only two job offers from the Mississippi Department of Transportation and from an employer in Los Angeles. She stayed home and went to work in the bridge division, then moved to the Starkville project office, then transferred to the Gulf Coast at the same time gambling operations were gaining a foothold. Like Tudor, she moved up the ranks until she became executive director.

“I think the thing that always kept pushing me to go to the next level, the next level, is I saw things that needed to be changed,” she said. “I wanted to effect change, and you can’t do it until you get in the right place. … We’re going to make it better for these women that are coming along now.”
Asked what advice they would give to their younger self, they both agreed they shouldn’t have taken things and themselves so seriously.

They agreed that they were scrutinized as female transportation professionals, but McGrath said she didn’t remember ever being discriminated against. She said she and Tudor as directors can stop inappropriate comments from being directed against women in their departments.

Asked by an online participant how female professionals can mentor other women, Tudor said, “I think we need to be approachable, and we don’t need to be so hard on each other. I talked about there’s a different standard for women in the overall industry, but I think we’re hard on each other. We need to help each other and realize that we’re all just trying to do a good job, and just be there.”

Asked to share when she had the most fun in her career, Tudor described a ribbon cutting at a highway widening project in the Crossett-Hamburg area. A dangerous two-lane road that often carried log trucks had been widened into a four-lane with a turning lane. It was her first time to speak at such an event as director.

“They were so excited, and I just felt the excitement, and I felt like I’m part of something that’s helping people so much, and it was a great feeling. And I thought, ‘I am so fortunate to be up here taking credit for this. I didn’t even do it,’” she said with a laugh.