Minority contractors criticize tollway budget proposal
Thanks to higher truck tolls, the Illinois tollway will reap extra revenues next year but that didn't mean the 2016 proposed budget didn't receive scrutiny Thursday.
Several tollway directors asked administrators to restore cuts in a diversity program on the heels of some black contractors remonstrating with the agency for falling short on inclusion of minorities.
The operating budget for 2016 is estimated at $1.3 billion and the amount allotted to diversity and strategic development is about "one-tenth of 1 percent of the total budget," said Director David Gonzalez, a member of the newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Committee. "Now is not the time to reduce that," he added.
While a number of minority contractors praised the tollway for its efforts to hire diverse firms, others said the agency isn't doing enough.
"We'll continue to come until we see change," African American Contractors Association President Omar Shareef said.
Tollway contractor Larry Jones, vice president of Outlook Design and Construction, said his firm was proof the agency does reach out to African Americans.
But there's a lot of bureaucracy involved in getting a contract that puts small firms at a disadvantage, he pointed out.
"I had to hire two staff people to do paperwork for a project that's under $1 million," Jones explained.
Next year, administrators recommended spending $2.4 million on the diversity and strategic development department, a decrease of $146,000 from 2015.
"I fully support an increase given the conversation today," Director Joseph Gomez of Chicago said.
Tollway Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said he expects to resolve the issue by the time the board votes on the budget in December.
"Sometimes throwing money at a problem doesn't solve it but you also have to invest to get results," Schillerstrom said.
There's a lot of work for construction and engineering firms at the tollway with $1.4 billion in road building planned in the 2016 capital budget.
The lion's share of the capital budget -- $577 million -- goes to widening the Jane Addams Tollway, with $383.6 million for extending the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway (Route 390).
The maintenance and operations budget reflects an increase of 3.6 percent from 2015, partly related to higher health care and pension costs as well as growth in credit card fees.
Revenues will grow from an estimated $1.2 billion in 2015 to $1.3 billion in 2016, partly related to truck tolls rising by 10 percent next year.