Competitors Steer Clear of Gibson County - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: High-Dollar Highways

Competitors Steer Clear of Gibson County

(Story created: 8/2/04)

While investigators continue to probe whether highway contractors may have engaged in bid-rigging, NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams has discovered one area of the state where some of the most suspicious deals may have taken place.

From tiny Skull Bone, Tennessee, in northern Gibson County, you can find your way to almost any place in the world.

A guidepost lists the distance to some of the world's great cities.

But the folks who pave Tennessee's roads just can't seem to find their way to the county just north of Jackson.

"We've contacted other asphalt plants -- people that lay asphalt -- and they said no way that they'd bid in Gibson County," says Gibson County highway commissioner George Pounds.

For years, Dement Construction has virtually controlled the sale of asphalt there.

Three years ago, Dement bought out its only competitor - and immediately jacked up the price it charged the county by more than a third, according to county highway officials.

"When you don't have competition, you expect a price increase because you're kind of at the mercy of the competition," Pounds observes.

Tennessee's road builders have long argued that competition is limited by the location of asphalt plants in the state.

But in Gibson County, Dement's asphalt plant is located down to the south.

Yet, the county is surrounded by five counties where another big road builder, Ford Construction, has its own asphalt plants.

Still, Ford will not come across the county line to compete.

"Every year, when we send out bid contracts, we always send one to Ford," the highway commissioner says.

But they have "never" responded.

It's the same story for state road projects. 

Out of $69 million in TDOT highway contracts awarded in Gibson County over five years, Dement pulled in almost $61 million. In  recent years, it's seen little or no competition.

Take, for example, a stretch of Highway 45W in the northern part of the county. Ford's plants are actually closer, just across the county line. But it didn't even bother to bid on an $8 million paving job.

"If you have a plant located in the general area of a large contract, why would you not bid on it?" says Rodney Carmical, executive director of the Tennessee County Highway Officials Association.

He says the patterns we uncovered in Gibson County are prime evidence of what's wrong with the system.

"It's a situation where we can't get competitive pricing, where there's ample suppliers in that area."

As to why other companies will not bid on asphalt projects in Gibson County, Pounds says one company's answer was especially disturbing.

"They didn't want to be out of business."

Carmical explains, "It just stands to reason that a large conglomerate could bid lower than a small supplier."

"And put them out of business?" Phil Williams asks.

"If that's part of the process, yeah."

Neither Dement nor Ford officials returned our phone calls, but there may be innocent explanations for the patterns that we've uncovered.

Still, Ford Construction did beat out Dement one time for a highway construction project in Gibson County.

Even then, TDOT records show, Ford turned around and gave a half-a-million-dollar asphalt purchase to Dement.

Folks in Gibson County tell us they know of people who've been interviewed by investigators, but don't know what they told agents.

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