Asphalt Bill Receives First Legislative Hearing - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: High-Dollar Highways

Asphalt Bill Receives First Legislative Hearing

(Story created: 2/9/05)

For years, some counties complained that Tennessee's road builders practically had a license to lift taxpayers' money -- and that few lawmakers seemed to care. Now, that may be about to change.

This comes after our NewsChannel 5 investigation exposed Tennessee's High-Dollar Highways.

At issue: the asphalt used to pave Tennessee's roads -- and the lack of competition within the industry.

In dozens of places, only one company ever bids for a county's asphalt contract -- leaving that company able to charge whatever it wants.

"When you have no competition, it's all about how much profit they want to make," Greene County highway superintendent J.C. Jones tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter, Phil Williams.

Yet, a 1976 law pushed by the state's road builders makes it illegal for local governments to open their own asphalt plants.

"Why does an industry that says they are doing a great job -- and I'm sure they are -- why is it necessary to have a 30-year-old law that says no one else can compete?" asks Rodney Carmical, executive director of the Tennessee County Highway Officials Association.

Last year, the association couldn't even find a single senator to sponsor legislation to repeal that law.

"Finally, why should we change the law?" asked Greg Spradley, senior legislative research analyst for the state comptroller's office.

But a new study by the comptroller has breathed new life into that effort.

"There areas in this state where the market doesn't appear to provide adequate competition," Spradley continued.

Senate Transportation Committee chairman Mark Norris, R-Collierville, told fellow committee members that "all we really want to ensure is that the taxpayers are getting the best return on their dollars."

Norris has agreed to look at changing the law... although he admits it won't be easy.

"I've told by one side that it will be a very tough sell," he says.

"The road builders?" Phil Williams asks.

"The road builders have said so."

The Tennessee Road Builders Association argues that government should be in competition with private business. 

Just in the past year, the road builders' campaign committee handed out about $150,000 in campaign contributions to influence lawmakers.

Still, Spradley told the committee, "Counties may be able to make themselves a better deal."

Local road officials say all the attention may now be paving the way to a debate that puts taxpayers' interest ahead of the industry's self interest.

The investigation into possible price-fixing or bid-rigging inside Tennessee's road-building industry continues.

The report can be found at: www.comptroller.state.tn.us/orea/reports/asphalt.pdf

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