Professional services need competitive bidding

For such a big industry, the road construction business in Illinois seems awfully close-knit.

That's one take-away from an Illinois tollway decision Wednesday to award a contract worth $157 million to Omega & Associates, the Lisle-based engineering company that employs tollway Chair Robert Schillerstrom's daughter as a marketing coordinator and chief tollway engineer Paul Kovacs' son as a civil engineer and has donated to charities run by two other tollway directors, Neli Vasquez Rowland and Corey Brooks.

So many connections with such a big contract raises eyebrows and causes us to wonder how Schillerstrom and Kovacs can effectively lead on the massive Tri-State rebuilding project if they recuse themselves from any hiring or financial decisions involving Omega. We're nevertheless glad they have removed themselves from those decisions and see that as the minimum safeguard against conflicts of interest.

Beyond that, the investigation by Daily Herald staff writer Marni Pyke points to an even bigger problem with the tollway's system of awarding contracts that does not adequately protect tollway users' interests or money.

Companies vying to offer professional services, such as supervising the multiyear Tri-State project, aren't required under state law to submit sealed bids, as construction companies must do. That competitive bidding process usually results in the contract going to the qualified bidder offering the lowest cost and is meant to prevent political steering of contracts to companies that might not have the best service or price.

Professional contracts, by contrast, are awarded at the discretion of the tollway board from among three finalists vetted by a committee of executive, engineering, procurement and diversity staff plus an engineering professor.

That distinction is allowed under state law, and it's time for it to end. Legislators should put in place a bidding requirement for awarding professional services contracts.

Charitable contributions by those seeking contracts fall into a gray area in state law that also should be tightened. Meanwhile, Brooks says his Project H.O.O.D. has returned the donation from Omega.

If you're still not convinced, listen to Vasquez Rowland. Once a general contractor herself, she says she's had long relationships with numerous other contractors like Omega that came before her 2016 tollway appointment.

"The legal opinion is that there are no concerns based on the fact these relationships pre-existed the tollway," she said.

It's not illegal, but it's eye-opening. Given all the ways the tollway leaders and contractors intersect, strengthening the bidding process to avoid any favoritism is the least we should do.

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