TR Auto Truck Plaza Declares Bankruptcy

Truckstop recently received $424,000 in federal stimulus funds for electrification

DANDRIDGE, Tenn. -- In July, Tennessee's transportation commissioner applauded the opening of the state's first truckstop electrification terminal at TR Auto Truck Plaza in Dandridge, a project taxpayers paid for with a $424,000 federal stimulus fund grant. Now, after TR Auto Truck Plaza filed for bankruptcy, the new equipment sits unused as U.S. Bank took possession of the business after an auction failed to solicit a single bid, reported The Tennessean.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) approved the stimulus grant to Mountain Plaza Inc., the truckstop's owner. The company, whose creditors included the state and federal governments, filed for bankruptcy protection in the middle of the process.

TDOT officials stress that the department was simply passing along the federal grant funds it had applied for and that no state money was involved. "EPA did not require financial or criminal background checks or information to be disclosed on grant applications," TDOT spokesperson B.J. Doughty told the newspaper.

On July 22, 2010, a state tax lien was filed against the company, but it wasn't until October 2010 that TDOT learned about Mountain Plaza's bankruptcy. TDOT changed subsequent application packages and included language requiring applicants to certify that they "have no outstanding government debt."

Mountain Plaza's grant was part of $2 million that TDOT received from the EPA as part of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009. The money was given to truckstop electrification projects along Tennessee interstate corridors. The systems reduce diesel emissions and improve air quality by allowing truckers to hook up to air conditioning and electricity so they can shut down their engines.

"It was up and running for several months up until the mortgage company decided to foreclose," Mountain Plaza owner Ricky Hugo Lewis told the paper. "We had been working with them, but I had to shut it down two weeks ago because I couldn't operate it. It's a hell of a good system, and it will clean up the air. We just need another buyer to come in there and step up. All they'll have to do is take the plywood down and turn it on."

Lewis already has seen one prospective buyer back out, he said. Lewis said it was the prospective buyer who encouraged him to apply for the stimulus grant and prepared the application to TDOT.

The first round of grant applications was due September 2009. Mountain Plaza's was one of two applications TDOT received, and its location was a plus because the area had been designated by the EPA as one where air quality is not always healthy. The other application was withdrawn, and Mountain Plaza received an award letter in December 2009. On May 18, contracts were executed, and TDOT sent them to the Tennessee Department of Finance & Administration.

On May 24, 2010, U.S. Bank sued Mountain Plaza, Lewis and his wife for failing to repay a $2 million loan they had taken out to refinance the truckstop. Mountain Plaza filed for bankruptcy on June 3, 2010.

The stimulus award to Mountain Plaza was officially awarded 12 days later.

In 2002, Lewis was convicted of 31 counts of theft stemming from flawed sales tax returns, said the report. He was placed on probation for eight years and ordered to reimburse the state nearly $70,000, which Lewis said he did. In 2003, Mountain Plaza and the Lewises filed for bankruptcy separately. They emerged from those bankruptcies in 2005.

While he was still on probation early last year, Lewis was indicted for writing bad checks, including several of more than $10,000. Lewis was still on probation and his check fraud charges were still pending when TDOT approved the grant to his company.

Lewis said he owes a fuel supplier money that he can't pay, but denies writing bad checks. "I'm going to fight it all the way," said Lewis.

TDOT Commissioner John Schroer celebrated the truckstop electrification system's opening in July, and Doughty said it could be resurrected by a new owner.