Mn/DOT’s diversity efforts challenged


The Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) in February reported their 2007-08 performance on Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) contracting and women and minority participation on projects.

“There is a federal formula that we must follow,” said Mn/DOT Civil Rights Division Director Hope Jensen in testimony before the Minnesota House Transportation Committee February 18. “It is basically based on the number of ready, willing and able certified businesses that are in the Disadvantaged Business program.”

In their report to the Minnesota Legislature, Mn/DOT officials said that their 6.2 percent DBE participation goal set for 2007 was met, along with the following diversity efforts:

• 64 minorities were in the department’s On-the-Job Training (OJT) program in 2007 and 68 in 2008.

• 42 women and minority trainees completed the Roads Opportunities and Diversity Success (ROADS) program in 2007 and 2008.

• Two truck driving training programs were developed in 2008, one in Detroit Lakes in partnership with the White Earth tribe, and a second in partnership with Merrick Community Services in St. Paul and the Minneapolis Urban League.

Forty-two students began with the two programs, and 24 students graduated, including 10 Native Americans, five Black males, two Somalis, one Asian male, one Latina and one Ethiopian male, along with three Whites.

• Currently, 26 percent of all Mn/DOT minority employees are either students or graduates of the Seeds program, a Mn/DOT feeder program started in 1993. The program had 30-35 participants in 2007 and 35-40 participants in 2008.

• The department’s Graduate Engineer Trainee Program, designed to provide Mn/DOT with new engineers, had 22-25 participants in 2007, and 31 participants in 2008. Five were persons of color (two Black males and three Asian/Pacific Islanders), and six were White females.

Despite these successes, including achieving a 15 percent women and minority participation rate on the Interstate 35W bridge project, Mn/DOT Policy Director Bernard Arseneau admitted that his department can do better.

“What we are really focusing on right now at the department is the commitment to make this better for everybody,” Arseneau said, adding that his department has set up 11 “areas for change” committees involving department officials and others to reevaluate how things have been working.

“For the first time, we are bringing all of the stakeholders together:
contractors, unions, minority groups, advocates, community groups, big contractors, DBEs, women, businesses, Mn/DOT, federal highway [officials]…so that we can grow the DBEs in such a way that serves the community needs, the contractors’ needs, and ultimately the needs of the citizens of Minnesota.

“We are fully and wholly committed to this transformational change,” said Arseneau.

However, according to several community leaders, Mn/DOT has not done enough in hiring more Blacks and persons of color or helping to get more Black and other minority-owned firms more transportation-related contracts.

There never has been a “sustained, continuous campaign on Mn/DOT,” said Summit Academy OIC President Louis King during a February 9 interview at his office.

He and H.I.R.E. Minnesota, a coalition of community organizations, has held several town hall meetings around the Twin Cities. “We’ll take 20,000 people to the State Capitol on the 20th of April to bring attention to this disparity,” he promised.

Over 100 people packed the February 18 House Transportation Policy and Oversight Committee hearing at the State Office Building in St. Paul, where Arseneau and Jensen presented their report to state lawmakers.

“Our charge is to make sure that we are looking at everything that Mn/DOT is doing and making them accountable,” explained Rep. Bobby Champion, who asked both Arseneau and Jensen numerous questions about Mn/DOT’s diversity efforts and later called for more transparency and accountability.

Arseneau told the committee, “It is important for the department to be transparent, accountable and corroborative with the community as we develop a program and improve the program as it currently exists.”

During the hearing, Rev. Paul Slack of ISAIAH, a coalition of 90 Twin Cities and St. Cloud area churches that works on racial and economic justice issues, testified, “We want a workforce that reflects the demographics of Minnesota.”

King also testified and recommended several changes, including establishing a “community oversight committee that is independent of Mn/DOT.” He also expressed concern that Blacks and persons of color might be shut out of about $134 million targeted for urban and suburban area transportation projects from the $502 million in stimulus funds the state expects to receive.

“We will not stand on the sidelines in this construction season and see this money go away,” King pledged.

Coalition of Black Churches representative Bill English warned committee members that staged protests and possible legal action “to bring about public scrutiny on the failure of Mn/DOT to guarantee equal contracting opportunities among communities of color and women-owned businesses” may take place later this spring.

“That hearing was uncomfortable to go through, but we accept responsibility for that,” admitted Arseneau during a February 25 interview at Mn/DOT offices.

Jensen added, “The folks that spoke and found fault with [the department’s] past history are not on opposite poles. We are on the same side — we all are working for the same thing.” She reaffirmed that her office will be actively involved to ensure minority participation on any federal stimulus-funded projects.

“It is important to us that we do everything we can to make sure that [federal stimulus] money is distributed in a way that meet the needs of all of our citizens,” added Arseneau.

Mn/DOT has set a 15-percent minority participation goal on upcoming state transportation projects, such as new construction of a four-lane freeway in Maple Grove; reconstruction of I-494 and Highway 169 in Bloomington, Eden Prairie and Edina; and replacing I-90 bridges in Mower County.

“Our goal this year is 15.3 percent [minority participation], and we are going to work to make that goal,” Jensen pledged, adding that her office also plans to hold “meet-and-greets” for primary contractors and DBEs “to kick off the seven design-build projects that will be happening this spring. We are trying to be very pro-active here as far as knowing that we are going to have a large volume of work going out pretty quickly.”

Furthermore, both officials agree that improvement is needed at Mn/DOT, especially in holding contractors more accountable for diversity hiring goals. “It has been difficult for us to do that because the program has not been what we wanted it to be so that we could hold them accountable,” Arseneau noted.

“We understand that we need to do better and do more, and we are moving in that direction,” said Jensen.

But King is less confident of that movement, insisting that Mn/DOT “is not serious about hiring women and minorities, or forcing its contractors to do it.”

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