Industry Insider Breaks Silence on Road Contracts - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: High-Dollar Highways

Industry Insider Breaks Silence on Road Contracts

(Story created: 8/3/04)

For the first time, an insider from Tennessee's road-building industry is breaking his silence. He's talking about Tennessee's High-Dollar Highways -- and about how some contractors may drive up the prices you pay on hundreds of millions of dollars in road projects.

When it comes to paving Tennessee's roads, the folks who open the bids sometimes find they don't have much of a choice.

"Hell, I'd like to give them a better price and be able to compete," says Tommy Wright of Wright Paving Contractors in Fayetteville. "That's all I want to do. That's all I'm asking for is a chance."

The problem: one of the main companies that supplies the stone that goes into Wright's asphalt is also his main competitor.

"He who controls the rock controls the work," Wright tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

Six years ago, the Nashville-based Rogers Group set what it called a "Big Hairy Audacious Goal" -- to extend its reach and its profits.

That included buying up quarries across southern Middle Tennessee and many of the asphalt plants that went with them -- putting Rogers into the paving business there.

"That put them to where they had the rock advantage," Wright says.

"So they became a supplier and a competitor?" Williams asks.

"Right."

Wright foreman Danny Winnett says that leaves Rogers in a position to crush the competition if it wants a highway contract for itself.

"If they want you to have it, they'll lower the price of the rock for you so you can get it to keep from, say, somebody else getting it," Winnett says.

"But if they want the job, how in the world are they going to sell you the rock at the same price they would sell it to themselves."

The result: Rogers has carved out an area of dominance across the southern part of the state: pulling in almost $11.4 million in TDOT contracts in Lawrence County where it was the only bidder.  It landed another $11.4 million in one-bid contracts in Coffee County.

"We would love to be on a level playing field," Wright says. "We've been there before."

So, not far from Rogers' quarry in the Hillsboro community in eastern Coffee County, Wright decided he'd put in his own quarry.

When he took his rezoning request to the county, Wright ran into opposition from folks who didn't want another quarry in their back yards.

But the opposition didn't just spring up from the middle of Coffee County. It was orchestrated, in part, by the Rogers Group -- to keep out competition."

In fact, a Rogers vice president e-mailed his employees, "I need you and your families at the Coffee County Administration Building.... Show your disapproval of a new quarry and asphalt plant."

The reason, he wrote, is competition.

"If we allow ... Wright Paving to move into Hillsboro, it will take work away from RGI, and YOU!"

Wright says, "I knew it was going to be a hard battle. But I was hoping it was going to be a battle that was above board."

When it went before the county commission, Wright's rezoning request was denied.

Now, Tommy and his wife Norma fear other competitors may be afraid to take on such a big battle.

"They control the rock, they control the price and I guess you might say they control me."

Rogers Group provided NewsChannel 5 with the following written statement:

"Rogers Group encourages all its employees to be participating citizens in their communities.  Our company is active in all our communities, including Coffee County.  Last September, one of our local managers made employees aware of an application to open another stone quarry in Coffee County.  About 20 of our local employees, understanding how this could affect them personally, exercised their right to voice their opinions about the economic and community impact of another quarry.  In the ten months since the first public meeting addressing this issue, the planning and county commissioners heard from both sides -- neighbors, community leaders, our employees and proponents of the quarry -- before making their final decision last week."

Rogers Group also provided NewsChannel 5 with a newspaper article, which indicated the company's recent bid on asphalt in Franklin County came in lower than expected.

In fact, that's happening all across Tennessee.  County highway officials say the fact that the road-building industry is under investigation may have a lot to do with that.

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