Marietta firm that will repair I-85 bridge has big presence at Capitol

Marietta-based C.W. Matthews has long been a force — albeit often a behind-the-scenes-one — at the state Capitol.

Even if they are busy, politicians will take the company’s call. And when campaign season comes around, politicians will call on the company for help.

Many years ago it was said that Georgia Power rules the statehouse, but when it comes to transportation, Matthews has a big seat at the table after decades of working on many of the state’s biggest highway projects, helping to fund political campaigns of governors and lawmakers, and spending big money to promote road-building.

It was no surprise Tuesday when state officials announced that C.W. Matthews will lead the effort to repair the collapsed section of I-85. The state eschewed the normal competitive bidding process to expedite the process, and C.W. Matthews has long been by far the Georgia Department of Transportation’s biggest road contractor.

Since 2008, C.W. Matthews has done more than $2 billion worth of work for the DOT.

It has built or repaved every interstate in metro Atlanta, constructed the fifth runway at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and in 2015 it was awarded a $140 million contract to design and build a 10-mile extension of I-85’s high-occupancy toll lanes in Gwinnett County. A decade earlier it was part of a team that won what was then considered the largest DOT contract in state history — $148 million — to rebuild the I-85/Ga. 316 interchange in Gwinnett.

In fiscal 2016, which ended June 30, C.W. Matthews was paid three times more for jobs than its nearest highway contracting competitor, E.R. Snell of Snellville.

While C.W. Matthews has won with the lowest bid, it’s also been extremely active in funding the careers of state politicians and pushing for increased state road funding.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of campaign reports shows that in the past decade, the company and top executives contributed about $1.2 million to state political campaigns.

“When they decide to play, they play big,” said former state Sen. Chuck Clay of Marietta, a former longtime Cobb County politician who calls C.W. Matthews the “gold standard” of contractors.

“It’s kind of one of those things where they don’t come to play (in politics) often,” Clay said, “but when they come to play, they play for keeps.”

The company has deep, decades-long roots in Cobb County, and the company’s chairman, Robert Matthews, is a longtime friend of former Gov. Roy Barnes’. It poured money into his campaigns.

After Barnes, a Democrat, was beaten by Sonny Perdue, a Republican, in 2002, the company quickly contributed $10,000 to Perdue’s campaign and $10,000 to his inaugural committee. Many corporate giants did the same, but company officials never had the same relationship with Perdue that they had with Barnes.

When Barnes ran for governor again in 2010, company officials gave his campaign $78,000. But they hedged their bets and contributed $6,100 to the man who beat Barnes, Republican Nathan Deal. They later gave to Deal’s re-election campaign as well.

Besides Barnes, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the company’s largess has been Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who has collected about $40,000 in contributions from C.W. Matthews officials in the past decade. Cagle is considered a likely candidate for governor in 2018.

The company contributed about $300,000 to a group working to pass regional transportation sales taxes in 2012, an effort that failed in metro Atlanta.

After that defeat, highway contractors shifted gear and worked to persuade lawmakers to agree to higher state taxes directly, rather than going through voters. With their support, legislators in 2015 passed a major transportation funding bill designed to generate an additional $1 billion a year through tax and fee hikes.

The bill made it clear that all the money would go toward roads and bridges, as opposed to transit. The extra money has fueled a highway construction boom over the past year.

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