Friday, January 6, 2012

Despite lawsuit, high hopes pinned on bridge, courtesy of St. Louis Business Journal

Attorney Eric Vickers, who represents MEBCO, said the lawsuit against IDOT could affect economic opportunities once the bridge is completed. Photo by Brian Cassidy. 

Boosters of the new Mississippi River Bridge say the $667 million structure could provide a more streamlined transportation experience, which could result in economic growth throughout southwestern Illinois. However, the project is facing a potential roadblock.

A group of minority contractors say that the Illinois Department of Transportation isn’t providing a fair share of work for the project and they filed a lawsuit aimed at creating a “sea change” in hiring contractors. The suit could also change the minds of prospective developers looking to use the 1,500-foot cable bridge, expected in 2014, as an economic development tool.

Bruce Holland, president and CEO of Swansea-based Holland Construction Services, said the bridge could drastically improve transportation flow between Missouri and Illinois.

“I think it’s going to make it a whole lot easier for people to move to our region,” Holland said. “If I was an educated traveler, I’d be thinking about how I get around and not have to cross the bridges over the Mississippi because of the time it takes and the safety issues. With at least 20 percent of the workforce in the St. Louis region coming from Illinois, I think (a new bridge) makes growth of the entire region work a lot better .”

Holland, who doesn’t think the lawsuit will delay the project, said the bridge could provide a better enticement for potential businesses. For instance, he noted that there was a time when UPS was looking at locating at Mid-America Airport in Mascoutah. One of the reasons they declined, he said, was the traffic delays along bridges.

While Holland noted that there haven’t been any major developments announced before the bridge’s completion, he expects more businesses to look at relocating along Route 255 in St. Clair and Madison County.

Pat McKeehan, the executive director of Southwest Illinois Leadership Council, said the new bridge could also go a long way toward making the business climate along Route 3 — which stretches from Grafton to Cairo — more cost efficient and successful.

“This is going to open up some new industrial properties that right now are underutilized,” McKeehan said. “We are already hearing from individuals starting the conversations about the potential development around those interchanges and how that might be able to draw business from both sides of the river to those locations.”

In the late fall, the Metro East Black Contractors Organization (MEBCO) filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. The suit argues that the Illinois Department of Transportation has a history of discriminating against minority contractors. In particular, the suit argues that contracts handed out in November for the bridge project didn’t include a large enough percentage of minority contractors.

Eric Vickers, an attorney handling the suit for MEBCO, said there had been negotiations over the last few months to provide a better framework for minority contractors in the region. He said while IDOT had made changes in how it dealt with minority contractors, the agency did not commit to “putting meat on the bones and having an actual agreement with the community and mayors that would make sure there was follow-through.”

The suit is asking for $650 million to be placed in a five-year trust administered by the court. Vickers said that money could be used for training and technical support programs for minority workers. He said the next step could be to try and halt work on the bridge in order to provide a chance for contracts to be awarded to minority workers.

Vickers said he hasn’t sought a restraining order against the project from being constructed any further, but added such a move “is on the table.” In the meantime, Vickers said the lawsuit has its consequences.

“Work is steadily going by,” Vickers said. “As the court process is moving, work is going on and we’re losing jobs and we’re losing economic opportunities.”

Josh Kauffman, a spokesman for IDOT, said that there have been no delays yet due to the lawsuit. Kauffman provided documentation to the Business Journal stating that the Department of Labor has set goals to encourage at least 14.7 percent of the workforce be minority workers and at least 6.9 percent of the workforce be female. As of Sept. 30, the documents indicate that the percentage of minority contractors on the bridge — about 23.5 percent — is above that threshold.

The lawsuit accuses IDOT of placing “a ceiling of 22 percent” on the overall IDOT minority contractor goals, despite evidence that higher thresholds were “justified by past race discrimination, thereby perpetuating the pattern of the denial of contract and job opportunities for blacks and minorities on IDOT District 8 construction projects.”

Courtesy of St. Louis Business Journal and Jason Rosenbaum is a St. Louis freelance writer.

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