Study cites continued discrimination in tollway contracts

Since raising tolls in 2012 to fund a $12 billion capital program, the Illinois tollway has touted its job-creating prowess and inclusion of minorities in the resulting road building contracts.

But a study commissioned by the agency finds "extensive evidence that discrimination on the basis of race and gender continues to operate in the tollway's construction and construction-related markets," consultants Colette Holt and Associates concluded.

"The tollway is evaluating the 2015 disparity study, which is part of the agency's ongoing effort to provide equal opportunities in all aspects of its Move Illinois capital program, including contracting and consulting," spokesman Dan Rozek said.

The board will vote later on the study and recommendations to update its policies to "remove obstacles limiting the utilization of small, minority and women-owned firms in competing for agency contracts," he said.

Disparities exist between the availability of female-, Hispanic-, black- and Asian-owned businesses and how much they are used for tollway contracts, the report released Wednesday stated.

For example, in a sampling of construction and construction-related spending, minority firms received about 21 percent of tollway contract dollars with white male-owned firms getting the remainder, the consultants said. Of that percentage, black-owned firms received 1.13 percent compared to white female-owned firms with 3.85 percent, Asian firms with 4.3 percent and Hispanic firms with 11.5 percent.

The study recognized that the agency has conducted outreach to recruit minority firms and offered resources such as a mentoring program. But "significant obstacles remained" to equity, the consultants said after interviews with 123 minority contractors.

Those barriers include gender and racial stereotyping, according to those interviewed.

"It is a good-old-boy network," one contractor said.

Another commented, "There's still the perception that if you're a minority or a woman you can't perform. That there's something wrong with you, you know, there's something lacking."

And minority businesses "were perceived to lack the capacity to do additional work or more complex work," another said.

An analysis of contracts from 2010 through 2012 showed white firms getting the lion's share or $1.3 billion out of $1.7 billion in contracts.

With engineering contracts, for example, white male-owned firms were paid $246 million compared to Asian firms receiving $51.4 million, female firms earning $9.6 million, black firms with $9.6 million and Hispanic firms with $6.7 million.

The consultants recommended the tollway continue to reduce the size of contracts to encourage smaller firms to apply, expand its mentoring program and encourage prime contractors to hire new minority subcontractors instead of using the same ones.

Hearings on the study will occur in the suburbs at 2 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19, at the Naperville Marriott, 1801 N. Naper Boulevard.

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