Tollway looks to hire minority contractors

Illinois tollway leaders said Wednesday they will work on increasing the number of black contractors who participate in an ongoing $12 billion, 15-year capital program.

Illinois law encourages the inclusion of disadvantaged business enterprise firms - owned by minorities or women - as a percentage of state contracts.

Although the agency is hitting its goals in terms of hiring Hispanic-, Asian- and female-owned subcontractors, there's a lag when it comes to black-owned businesses, officials said.

"We're not critical, and we're not upset," Chairwoman Paula Wolff said at a finance committee meeting, "we just need to understand where the obstacles are ... and how we overcome those obstacles. It's clear we're having a struggle getting the kinds of African-American participation we all hoped to get."

"For the most part, we've achieved or surpassed our goals ... certainly there's some places where there's a shortfall," Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said. "We'll come up with a more specific and targeted plan."

Of $3.1 billion paid on construction and professional services contracts from 2009 through 2014, $719.1 million or 23.4 percent was paid to firms owned by minorities or women, tollway spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said.

Meanwhile, officials said it was business as usual for approving contracts on the Jane Addams Tollway and Elgin-O'Hare Expressway extension.

Some confusion had emerged last week after Gov. Bruce Rauner took office and ordered that any new construction contracts be reviewed by his administration given the state's financial crisis.

"We'll see all major 2015 construction moving forward," Lafleur said.

As to the fate of top administrators and board members at the agency, it's unclear. Tollway board members, who hire the agency's CEO, are appointed by the governor. Five board directors' terms expire this year.

"It's my observation and experience, any new governor coming in can always ask people to step down before their term is over ... it's a typical practice," Wolff said. "Every governor has the opportunity to have whoever they think is the best person in any job in state government. Ultimately it's the governor who is responsible for how the state government runs."

Tollway awards contract to firm despite past issues

  Tollway chairman Paula Wolff has been leading the organization for just over a year. File photo by Mark Black/
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