Highway Conference in Minneapolis to Focus on Disadvantaged Businesses

Minneapolis is the place to be this month for transportation officials and highway contractors. For the first time, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Civil Rights Conference is coming to Minnesota. The event is set for Aug. 21-23 at the Minneapolis Hilton Hotel.

Sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Civil Rights Office, the AASHTO conference will explore ways to get more women and minority contractors involved in highway projects and answer questions about disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) requirements.

The conference is held every two years, but this year's event has a new twist: It will be preceded by an Aug. 19 "highway contractors' forum" that will encourage open dialogue between federal civil rights officials, disadvantaged businesses and prime contractors. Information from the forum will be compiled in a report that will be sent to other state departments of transportation.

The forum will be "the first time that primes and DBEs have had a chance to talk directly to the office that creates the rules and regulations that we all struggle with," said Hope Jensen, director of MnDOT's Civil Rights Office. One thing they struggle with is the nebulous language associated with DBE requirements. Because a DBE program can't impose quotas, state transportation departments require prime contractors to show "good faith efforts" in hiring disadvantaged subcontractors.

Sounds good, but what does "good faith" really mean? "It's kind of a vague term, and sometimes it's hard for contractors to understand what they are required to do," Jensen said. Same is true, she added, for those charged with enforcing the good faith policy.

Another challenge is finding a place for small, minority-owned firms in large, unconventional projects. Design-build construction comes to mind. Increasingly popular in state transportation departments, including MnDOT, design-build allows construction to begin before the design work is completed.

Design-build can expedite large projects, but it also presents challenges for small business participation. For example, it often requires a subcontractor to bid a project without knowing the exact scope of the work - a difficult proposition for small firms. "We are looking for best practices from other states and how they have succeeded in educating the DBE community on the different aspects of the design-build program," Jensen said.

Design-build, and its impact on minority contracting, will be the subject of panel discussion set for Aug. 23 from 9 to 10:45 a.m. at the conference. Other conference topics include recruitment programs and workforce development, diversity leadership training, recent court cases related to highway construction, new ADA regulations, on-the-job training, developing consistent DBE guidelines, DBE fraud and tribal sovereignty.

Scheduled speakers throughout the five days include Frederick Isler of the Federal Highway Administration's Civil Rights Office, Brian Deery of the Associated General Contractors of America, Walter Bond of Walter Bond Seminars, Dr. Mary Francis Berry and Richard Copeland of Thor Construction. Copeland will be recognized as a DBE program "graduate," meaning his company has grown to the point where it's no longer considered a disadvantaged business, Jensen said. Other contractors will be honored for their mentor/protégé efforts. Building a relationship is a key to creating opportunities for disadvantaged businesses, Jensen noted. To that end, as a kickoff to large projects, MnDOT has sponsored "speed dating" efforts to bring prime contractors and DBEs together. "So much happens when relationships are built," Jensen said. "Once you prove yourself on a project, that prime is going to come back to you."

For more information about the conference, including a schedule of events, go to www.dot.state.mn.us/aashto.

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