EAST ST. LOUIS - Concern for minority employment for new Mississippi River bridge construction increased over the last seven weeks since the bridge's groundbreaking was rescheduled to Monday.
United Congregations of Metro-East, a social justice organization, held a news conference Monday following the Illinois and Missouri Departments of Transportations' groundbreaking ceremony on the Eads Bridge deck, a few feet from where dignitaries had praised the project minutes before.
"Important representatives were here today, but only one talked about diversity," said Jobs Task Force Chairman Troy Buchanan with United Congregations of Metro-East and the O'Fallon, Ill., NAACP as political chairman.
Buchanan referred to U.S. Rep. William "Lacy" Clay, D-St. Louis, but Buchanan stressed the importance of the Illinois Department of Transportation employing Illinois minorities.
In letters sent to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who was absent Monday, and other governors, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood asked them to provide small disadvantaged businesses and female and minority workers a fair chance to participate in transportation projects. MoDOT has awarded a large portion of the contracts for the main span to minority contractors, but IDOT has not followed suit, Buchanan said.
Buchanan said he expects at least 30 percent minorities to be employed for the Illinois portion of the project. IDOT submitted a request for a waiver to the U.S. Department of Transportation in order to be able to set separate goals for disadvantaged minority and women-owned contractors. While United Congregations of Metro East, Metropolitan Congregations United and the Transportation Equity Network support these efforts, the groups' major concern is creating equal employment opportunities for those who are unemployed and experiencing economic hardships in the communities surrounding the project, particularly East St. Louis.
East St. Louis' unemployment rate is 18.4 percent, which is double the national average. Yet, one of the largest U.S. infrastructure projects will take place at the city's doorstep.
"We want to make sure the economic and community development is there for all," East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks said.
Buchanan said that 10 of the 100 people who went through the IDOT job program were hired for the project. He said IDOT has spent millions of dollars in training these people. More than 100 people are in training now, he noted.
The Interstate 64 (U.S. Highway 40) project in St. Louis had a minority workforce percentage of 27 percent. Buchanan said his leadership had an agreement with the Interstate 64 project that it would use 0.5 percent of its construction budget for workforce development, and that they were able to have an on-the-job training program for I-64.
"We were happy with the success, and we are attempting to duplicate that in Illinois," Buchanan said. "But we're talking two different states, two different jurisdictions and different administrations that run the states. So, we have to come over here and talk about this issue."
MoDOT and IDOT both promised to follow the I-64 model for the Mississippi River bridge, but neither has included these provisions in the contracts, advertisements or in any other agreement, Buchanan said.
Diversity Economic Council's Toni Perrin sat with IDOT officials to make sure Illinois minority apprentices and journeymen were hired, she said.
"But they are bringing back older people in union halls, and they don't want to adopt I-64 as a model," Perrin said at the news conference. "Nothing has happened. We've trained all of these people with different schools, and they still don't have jobs."
She said right now, IDOT and MODOT are using only the U.S. Department of Labor's goals of 14.7 percent for minorities and 6.9 percent for women. There are incentives for achieving these goals and sanctions if not.
"This is low with the number of people in this community," Parks said about East St. Louis, which has nearly 100 percent minority residents.
The bridge project is being funded through a combination of federal, Illinois and Missouri state funds, but the majority of spending will be done in, by and for Illinois for the state's portion of the project. The Mississippi River bridge funding breakdown is $313 million in Illinois funding; $115 million in Missouri funding; and $239 million in federal funding for a total of $667 million.
Buchanan said that $240 million is allocated specifically for the bridge's span and, but for the small percentage of Missouri spending, the rest of the money would be spent for construction on the Illinois side of the Mississippi.
Mississippi River Bridge project facts (Sources: Illinois and Missouri Departments of Transportation):
- The project is expected to be open to traffic in 2014.
- The Illinois and Missouri Departments of Transportation, along with the main span contractor team, Massman Construction/Traylor Brothers/Alberici, announced Monday the start of work on the bridge's main span.
- The cable-stayed bridge will relocate Interstate 70 from the Poplar Street Bridge to the new bridge.
- The 1,500-foot main span will be the third-longest cable-stayed bridge in the United States.
- The main span will cost $229.5 million; the total cost will be $670 million, which includes $313 million from the state of Illinois.
- At 400 feet tall, the towers for the main span are two-thirds the height of the Gateway Arch on the St. Louis riverfront.
- The Illinois and Missouri governors signed the bi-state agreement for the bridge project in February 2008.
- The cable-stayed portion of the bridge will require 8 million tons of reinforcing steel - equivalent to the weight of 363 school buses.
- The main span requires 14.8 million pounds of girders - equivalent to the weight of 925 elephants.
- This project will accommodate building a companion bridge to provide an additional four lanes. The companion bridge will be constructed in the future if traffic levels dictate and funding becomes available.
This story originally appeared in the Alton Telegraph on April 19, 2010 and is available here: http://www.thetelegraph.com/news/bridge-39085-illinois-project.html