Special Report: SR 9—Mississippi’s Road to Toyota

Collaboration and a willingness to seek superior solutions helped push a highway project forward, and bring a community back with it.
By W. Hibbett Neel, P.E., M.SAME, F.ITE

Known today as Mississippi’s Road to Toyota, State Route 9 through Pontotoc County, Miss., is bringing much-needed employment and economic stability to the northeast corner of the state.

When State Route (SR) 9 in Pontotoc County, Miss., emerged as a focal point for optimizing a new Toyota automobile manufacturing plant, the state’s decision to switch to design-build delivery, along with an unprecedented public-private collaboration made improving the road a reality—under budget and in record time.

Transportation infrastructure is essential for successful economic development. The highway system particularly is critical for trade logistics and transporting goods, both key aspects of a nation’s health and security. Five years ago, that highway efficiency served as the catalyst for attracting and optimizing one of the most significant economic development opportunities in Mississippi’s history—an automobile manufacturing plant bringing thousands of jobs to a northeast Mississippi community in need of work.

SR 9—today known as Mississippi’s Road to Toyota—began as a traditional designbid- build project with a typical 10-year to 12-year schedule. The project had been part of the Vision 21 Highway Program the Mississippi Legislature passed in 2002, but had not been completely funded.


Mississippi made the highway a priority in early 2007 shortly after Toyota made public its plans to locate in the state, which represented an $800 million capital investment.

The road would be built specifically to provide the automaker and its suppliers better access to the Blue Springs plant, and to encourage future suppliers to locate in the vicinity. It would provide a north/ south connection to the plant, as well as a four-lane connection from the plant to I-55 to the west. This was of particular importance to two suppliers located in the northern Mississippi communities of Batesville and Senatobia.

For the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), this commitment by the state set a deadline for the road’s completion at less than two years. Facing this tight deadline and an even tighter budget, MDOT elected to change to design-build, and then charted an ambitious course of action—hinging on an unprecedented public-private collaboration— to make it a reality.


Prior to advertising the design-build project, MDOT contracted with a consultant to develop and acquire all needed right-of-way (ROW) plans, and to facilitate the relocation of utilities, residences and businesses in a compressed time frame.

This resulted in examining the routine process, identifying the critical path of necessary activities, and then completing many of these actions simultaneously. A key in expediting the pre-construction phase was identifying necessary ROW early and then to make a commitment not to revise it during acquisition. The pace of work simply did not allow time to revisit the limits of required ROW. Moreover, financial incentives enabled the consultant to complete many relocations in an expedited fashion. The relocation phase can routinely delay project delivery.

The design-build process seeks a best value proposal. An evaluation of proposals from consultants and contractors focused on three factors: capability, time and budget. MDOT selected the process to allow increased flexibility in design in order to encourage some out-of-thebox thinking. This delivery process also encouraged ingenuity by the private sector in both the design and construction phases—and allowed MDOT to short-list only the firms who were uniquely qualified to complete such an enormous volume of work in a very short time frame.

This criteria was especially important considering the increased attention on erosion control during an expedited pace of construction. Design-build delivery allowed contractors to partner with MDOT in determining ways to hasten construction while minimizing costs. Including time as a selection criteria gave MDOT the ability to select a contractor based on qualifications, ingenuity, time and cost.

There were several lessons learned during the design and construction phases, according to Mike Tagert, Transportation Commissioner of the Northern District, which enabled MDOT to complete the preconstruction and construction phases on future projects in a shorter time frame and at a lower cost. But the key component to expediting both phases was the commitment and cooperation of the private industry along with federal and state officials, including the governor’s office.

“Everyone involved in this process was made aware of the stringent timeline,” Tagert said. “When plan reviews were needed, they were done simultaneous with the ongoing process. When hard decisions were needed, they were made and not revisited. This project was a great example of partnering, and illustrated the capabilities of MDOT and the transportation industry working together.”

Design-build delivery helped complete the SR 9 project in 12 months, compared to a normal timeframe of four to five years for a project this size.

Jackson, Miss.-based Neel-Schaffer Inc. was selected to design and prepare rightof- way and construction plans for SR 9, from just north of the SR 6 interchange to just south of the US-78 interchange at New Albany, Miss.

After project design began, MDOT modified the scope of work to accelerate the Phase A preliminary design and added Phase B final contract plans (bridges only) ROW and utility phases in order to meet a construction completion of a 2012 time frame. Neel-Schaffer was requested to complete plans by March 2011 so MDOT could proceed with the project on a design-build basis. To abide by the accelerated schedule, the firm met with the MDOT design team on a weekly basis to respond to design, drainage, ROW, soil profile and environmental concerns.

Within 12 months, maps and deeds were developed and right-of-entry was gained or acquired on all 95 parcels. The team handled 29 relocations involving residents, businesses and miscellaneous personal properties. It coordinated relocations with nine utility companies, affecting 10 road crossings. By July 2011, the processes were completed. The contractor could begin construction.

The partnering process utilized on this project exemplifies what collaborative partnering is intended to be. All potential issues were identified and discussed during weekly meetings. Resolutions were found quickly to keep the project on schedule and to meet all contract requirements. Both entities were held accountable for progress and innovation throughout.

The project included 10 bridges at seven sites, including one major structure at Endville Road over SR 9. All the other sites are either grade separations or hydraulic crossings.

The Natchez Trace style interchange at Endville Road required five bridges to cross over the Coonewah Bottom Creek. All were designed using the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Load and Resistance Design for bridge design specifications. And, each was designed with prestressed beam superstructure, with the exception of the Endville Road bridge, where continuous steel girders also were used. The bridges in this project presented a wide variety of design challenges. Each structure was either curved, skewed, tapered, in super-elevation transition or some combination thereof. Additionally, three of the seven sites had bridges designed to be continuous for live load.

The work also involved seismic design aspects in determining the sizes and types of substructure systems required. Drilled shaft foundations were used at all hydraulic crossings to minimize disturbance to the environment.


The groundbreaking for the 10-mi stretch occurred on July 15, 2011. The normal time frame for a project of this magnitude is between four and five years. The road opened to traffic July 30, 2012.

Today, the Toyota plant employs 2,000 people. The company’s suppliers in Mississippi employ another 1,500. SR 9 also gives the northeast region of the state a north/south connection, which will further benefit commercial, private and public interests, today and in the future.

The speed with which this project was completed illustrates a state’s willingness to do what it takes to meet the needs of its businesses in a timely manner. It shows we can be as swift and nimble as we need to be to honor our economic developmentrelated commitments.

W. Hibbett Neel, P.E., M.SAME, F.ITE, is President, Neel-Schaffer Inc. and currently serves as International Vice President of the Institute of Transportation Engineers; hneel@ neel-schaffer.com.