Pioneer Press: MnDOT shorting disadvantaged firms on stimulus projects

By Jason Hoppin
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Updated: 10/13/2009 10:53:46 PM CDT

A new report by the religious-based community group ISAIAH says not enough of the federal stimulus money being spent on Minnesota's roads and bridges is making it into the hands of woman- and minority-owned businesses.

But the Minnesota Department of Transportation said Tuesday that there is more to the story, pointing out that many of the early projects have been in outstate Minnesota, and the agency predicts that the numbers will change once more metro-area projects get under way.

The report, showing that just 6 percent of the stimulus funds were going to disadvantaged businesses, was released before a hearing by the Minnesota House's Transportation and Policy Oversight Committee, chaired by Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis.

"The significance of this report is it documents some of the problems and challenges with the (American Reinvestment and) Recovery Act," Hornstein said.

Several minority groups used the hearing as part of a sustained effort to get MnDOT to meet its own goals for using disadvantaged businesses on state road projects. For nearly two decades, the agency has failed to meet those goals, which had called for a 15 percent participation rate. It was recently lowered.

"It blows my mind ... that an institution can have failure for 17 years, and continue to move on," said the Rev. Jerry McAfee, pastor of New Salem Baptist Church in North Minneapolis.

Bernie Arseneaux, MnDOT director of policy, safety and strategy initiatives, which includes

MnDOT's civil rights office, said the reasons for that are many, including goals that were set too high because of a flawed analysis of how many disadvantaged contractors were available for work.

MnDOT has worked with minority groups, contractors and labor unions to try to resolve the issue, but criticism of the agency hasn't abated. Arseneaux said MnDOT recently hired a facilitator to spend the next few months working with stakeholders.

"We believe the problem has been that we're disjointed. We haven't been working together," Arseneaux said.

Arseneaux also said contractors - which many minority groups blame for the lack of work - aren't to blame. He pointed out that under the bidding process, contractors must subcontract work to the lowest bidder.

But people like James Frisco, president of the Upper Midwest chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors, have had it with that kind of talk. He pointed out that Flatiron-Manson, the joint venture that built the new Interstate 35W bridge and was headquartered in Colorado, easily met minority-contracting goals for the project.

"I think as Minnesotans, we should be embarrassed," Frisco said. "Flatiron did it. Not one of our own can meet our goals. ... I have had it with 'good-faith efforts.' It doesn't work."

That echoes what the Rev. Paul Slack, a pastor at Brooklyn Park's New Creation Church who spearheaded the study for ISAIAH, said of the group's findings. Slack said the state should focus less on MnDOT processes and more on results.

"The processes that are currently in place do not work for all Minnesotans," Slack said.

Historically, there have been several barriers for minorities seeking construction jobs - from recalcitrant unions unwilling to open their ranks to minorities to an inexperienced job corps.

People like Louis King, president and CEO of Minneapolis' Summit Academy OIC, are changing that. He trains 400 to 500 people every month for jobs in the health care and construction industries, the majority of them minorities.

King said he's placed workers on the new Minnesota Twins stadium project, the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium and the new Minnesota Shubert Center. But he said it's easier to pressure local government officials to meet minority employment goals than state bureaucrats, since local officials are closer to their communities.

Testifying at the hearing Tuesday, King promised to change that, urging state lawmakers to pressure MnDOT to improve its track record.

"We're going to ask that you, in this next session, hold their feet to the fire and serve our interests," King said.

Jason Hoppin can be reached at 651-228-5445.