Grant them a fair chance to participate

The Georgia Department of Transportation has a sorry history of exclusion when it comes to minority businesses. This became readily apparent in 2012, when GDOT itself commissioned a Transportation Disparity Study to examine its efforts in utilizing Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs), which included African-American and woman-owned DBEs.

The study showed that African-American businesses received just 2.4 percent of federally funded GDOT projects. Moreover, African-American businesses received an abysmal 1.1 percent of state-funded projects. At that time I said, “The study indicates that, if all things were equal, African-American businesses would receive 22 percent of GDOT’s contracts.”

Women-owned disadvantaged businesses did 8.7 percent of federally-funded GDOT projects and 3.7 percent of state-funded projects. Simply put: GDOT does not have a state DBE program.

For this reason, civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People opposed the T-SPLOST. Why? Because there was no substantive commitment to inclusion of disadvantaged businesses.

At the time the disparity study was issued, the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) campaign was going on. The T-SPLOST referenda were held in 12 regions throughout the state. The one-cent T-SPLOST would have raised $18 billion in revenue over 10 ears for transportation projects. The metro Atlanta T-SPLOST referendum failed along with eight of the other 11 referenda.

With the failure of the regional T-SPLOSTs, the need remained for money to repair and build the state’s roads, bridges and transit. But the commitment to inclusion in GDOT’s contracting was still lacking.

In 2014, a Joint Transportation Study Committee was created by the General Assembly to look at transportation funding options. That committee recommended raising as much as $1.5 billion per year.

This year, House Bill 170 was introduced in the General Assembly to put in place the revenues to fund the recommendation.

What HB-170 did not include was any consideration for ensuring African-Americans, women and other DBEs were treated fairly in the contracting process for the $1.5 billion of projects. The legislation passed the House of Representatives. The only thing done to promote minority contracting was a weak letter written by the House transportation committee chair that provided platitudes but no specific commitments.

Senate Democrats demanded the bill include language committing GDOT to the creation of a state DBE program along with policies that supported fair treatment of contractors in the awarding of contracts resulting from HB-170. The Republican leadership and its road-building allies refused to include such language.

When the bill came to the Senate floor, all 18 Democrats voted against the bill, which passed with only the bare minimum of votes necessary. Only after that show of unity did Republicans begin to earnestly negotiate with Senate Democrats. A compromise was reached.

While the DBE language was not included in the bill, there was a commitment by the DOT board that it would consider a resolution. Additionally, a fund to assist DBEs in obtaining bonding and funding of engineering scholarships for minority students were agreed upon.

HB-170, expected to raise $900 million of revenue in its final iteration, passed overwhelmingly in a bipartisan manner.

Last week, the GDOT board passed a resolution which called for the establishment of a “DBE program applicable to capital construction projects resulting from the additional state revenue generated by Transportation Act of 2015.”

The commitment on minority contracting reached during the 2015 legislative session was historic. Still, it is only one step in the movement toward ensuring sure all of those who desire to do business with the state of Georgia will have a fair chance to participate.