Midwestern states form transportation diversity committee

By Rebecca Anzel Capitol News Illinois

Acting Illinois Department of Transportation secretary Omer Osman testifies before a virtual Illinois Senate committee on Thursday, Aug. 27. (Blueroomstream.com)

SPRINGFIELD — A coalition of 10 state transportation agencies, including Illinois’, announced the creation of a diversity panel last week to develop “fairness and inclusion” at work sites, the group’s president said.

The committee has not yet held a meeting, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Transportation said in an email, but its establishment “has been in the works for a while.” Members of the Mid-America Association of State Transportation Agencies will share methods and programs designed to diversify their practices.

“We are also committed to creating more contracting opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses and to avoid transportation projects having a negative impact on minority communities,” Craig Thompson, association president, said in a written statement. “Most of all, we strive to provide mobility options for everyone in our communities to make sure that transportation is not a barrier to the wellbeing of vulnerable people.”

Thompson is the secretary designee of Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation. States belonging to the association include Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio.

Illinois currently participates in the federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program, which is mandated by the U.S. Congress and overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Through the initiative, which began in 1980 and was most recently reapproved in 2015, funds are allocated to projects contracted by states to be completed by “firms owned and controlled by a socially and economically disadvantaged individual,” according to the program’s website.

At least 10 percent of federal dollars available for transportation-related projects must be spent with those disadvantaged businesses. A spokesperson for IDOT said in an email that in 2019, it reached a DBE Program participation mark of 17.07 percent. He added that is the largest percentage it achieved in six years and was in increase of 2 percentage points from the year prior.

“One of my core principles is making our workforce representative of the community IDOT serves,” Omer Osman, Illinois’ acting transportation secretary, said in a written statement. “Transportation truly has the ability to help Illinois realize the full potential of our communities and residents.”

State Sen. Cristina Castro, a Democrat from Elgin, said she is “proud” the coalition of state transportation departments created the diversity committee.

“COVID-19 and the recent protests have shined a light on the struggles people of color face on a daily basis, so it’s encouraging to see state agencies across the Midwest taking initiative to look inward and self-evaluate to see where they fall short on issues of diversity,” she said in a written statement.

“People do not always realize that systemic racial injustices can apply to something as trivial as transportation, so it’s great to see Illinois and other Midwestern states making diversity a priority,” Castro added.

State Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Chicago Democrat, has been hosting a series of virtual committee hearings as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. In a hearing last week, Osman answered several questions on the department’s diversity initiatives.

“The state spends billions of taxpayer dollars on roads, bridges, and mass transit construction and repair,” Villivalam said in a news release following the hearing. “The people of Illinois deserve to understand how, why, and where that money is spent. The decisions have to be equitable and transparent. It was great to hear that IDOT Secretary Osman and a number of stakeholders are committed to doing just that.”