Talking Michigan Transportation

Equity in infrastructure: Taking the pledge

October 18, 2022 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 4 Episode 122
Talking Michigan Transportation
Equity in infrastructure: Taking the pledge
Show Notes Transcript

This week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast focuses on the Equity in Infrastructure Project (EIP).  

On Oct. 11, chief executive officers from six state departments of transportation signed a pledge, saying they are committed to streamline processes for obtaining necessary disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) certifications, improve payment time and expand access to financing to help underserved businesses.

Michigan Department of Transportation Director Paul C. Ajegba was among the leaders signing the pledge. He talks about the importance of the event and what it means to him.

Saying it was high honor to be included in the event, Ajegba talks about both the symbolic and tangible benefits of signing the pledge. He says this demonstrates a commitment to make sure federal dollars are distributed in an equitable way to shore up DBE and other programs.

Ajegba also explains that it involves a bigger-picture view and looking at barriers holding back DBEs.

In the second segment, Phil Washington, CEO of the Denver International Airport and President Biden’s nominee to head the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), discusses his role in co-founding EIP.

"You can see the urgency behind our cause in how quickly this coalition is expanding with the participation of some of the largest public contracting entities in the nation," Washington said in the news release about the event. "As we improve America's transit systems, airports and other infrastructure, we must be focused on improving people's lives, too."

Washington also discusses the support and shared commitment of the White House.

Equity in Infrastructure: Taking the pledge

Jeff Cranson: Hello and welcome to the Talking Machine Transportation podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson. Today I'll be talking about equity in the context of building and maintaining transportation infrastructure. Last week, Michigan Department of Transportation director Paul Ajegba was among signers of an equity and infrastructure project pledge, solidifying a commitment to ensuring opportunities for underrepresented businesses. We'll talk about that pledge and then later I'll speak with Phil Washington, who is the CEO of the Denver International Airport and President Biden's nominee for administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. He helped cofound EIP, along with John Porcari, who was deputy Secretary and Chief Operating officer of the US Department of Transportation during the Obama administration, but first again I'm with director Ajegba. 

Paul Ajegba: Thank you. Good morning, Jeff. How are you today? Thanks. Thank you for having me. 

Cranson: Yeah, absolutely. I wanted you to talk kind of in general about what this equity and infrastructure pledge means to you. You were one of six DOT CEOs to sign this. You know, there's a there's a symbolic element to this, but there's also a very tangible element. Can you talk about what those are? 

Ajegba: Yeah. First let me say I was truly honored to be invited, to be part of the event last weekend in Washington. I think the symbolic part of it is that you know, the invited CEOs came together say we are pledging to the vision of what the equity in procurement (EIP) is right? The significance of this is to also show that our commitment to making sure that all these dollars that's being given to the states, that it's distributed in an equitable way, make sure that some of the DBE programs that we have in place, we show them off. And where we think we could do better; we should strive to do better. Part of the bigger picture of EIP is to look at what are some of the federal barriers that's holding the DBEs back from first people getting into the business to them growing. We've been working with them on some of these issues identified some for instance, I think the question of reciprocity between states, I think it's a good idea. We have a construction company of minority construction company located in Toledo, they should not have to go through another prequel process to get qualified right here in Michigan when they can do projects in Monroe in Dundee or quite frankly, all the way to Ann Arbor. So, these are some of the, the, the things we can do to make it easier. For them, and you know, like commercial useful function is a big issue on the federal level of DBE, cap on you know, your financial statement, it's a lot of things, that number has not changed in as long as I can remember. Those are the little things that we can do to our on our part to help move this initiative forward. 

Cranson: So, MDOT has had a disadvantaged business enterprise program for a number of years focusing on just the kinds of things you're talking about. And we can definitely talk about the social equity aspect on why that’s important and the belief that it, you know, the rising tide obviously is going to the lift all and that we need everybody to be able to participate long term for the health of the economy. The more the more businesses, big and small that are successful, the more successful we all are. So, talk about that DBE Program and you know what you've learned over the years about it and why it's helpful. 

Ajegba: I mean having spent a lot of time on this issue while I was in university region and in Metro, I think I somewhat understand some of the challenges that that is associated with growing the DBE's. For instance. Of course, you have to have a willing and able company out there. But how do you get to them to being willing and able company and that's making sure that things are put in place to help them succeed. We've had cases where we've had very promising DBE's take on more than they can handle, and when that happens, they get in trouble. But how do we make sure that they don't get to that point, you know, right, maybe creating some oversight things and put putting some oversight things in place and quite frankly, an advisory role sometimes when we need to, we're doing a lot of very big expedite projects where you try to inject the DBE in that process. They probably cannot keep up and that is not a good recipe, right? We would have to make sure that they are bidding on the right projects that will help them learn and grow to be able to stand on their own. And you know, I always like the matchmaking. yeah, where you match DBE with a big contractor to take him under their wings. They're more like what we're doing on the mentor proteges side, and the consultant side create programs like that where it has to do what they want for the big contractor want to take them on. So, you create an incentive for them to want to do that, and I think that to me is a slow, healthy word to stop moving the needle and entering this on this issue. 

Cranson: Well, some of the things that you've done even before you were director, but you, you know, especially underscored during your time as director since 2019. You know kind of lead right into this. I mean it's a natural evolution to have an equity in infrastructure project as an outgrowth of some of the things that you've done in your state and others have done one of those big things, you know, was your hand in and founding MDOT diversity, recruitment program and getting used from historically black universities and colleges into the system ahead of time. Can you talk about that? 

Cranson: No, I appreciate that. I think a program like that is, to me a good way to expose underrepresented group into our business, right? And when we created the program about eight years ago, it was small for bringing some who created with four students from HBCU school. We'll put them up at the University of Michigan, give him a job over the summer and in in doing that, we. It would kind of expose them to what we do walking out in the field with the hope that someday they, once they graduate, they want to walk in the industry and hopefully maybe decide they want to open their own construction company and based on the knowledge that they gain working out in the field. Obviously, the program has grown tremendously over the years. This past summer, I believe we had about 63 students from all HBCU's across the country come to Michigan and you know most, I think 90% of from worked out and the construction projects. And that's to me, is another way of trying to do what we can to expose them to the industry with the hope that eventually they will stay, which I believe it's a good thing for not just the state but the construction industry and the whole country.

Cranson: Yeah, absolutely. So. Something else that you've done recently in your tenure as director has created the department's first chief culture, equity, and inclusion officer. You put a special emphasis on that. You put that position at the deputy director level to, you know, make a statement for the department and for the rest of the state about how important this is. Can you talk about what? What brought you to that decision?

Ajegba: At first, I'm going to give Laura Mester and Tony Kratofil, my directors executive team (DET) a lot of credit on this. It was a DET vision to say, OK, with all the unrest going on in the country, emphasis on equity and inclusion. What part are we going to play in this? And over several meetings and discussions, we all decided, well, let's create our equity and inclusion position that's a deputy director level because if you really want to effect change, we truly believe you got to keep it at that level, and we reorganized the department. Some areas underneath that, that that position. Again, I'll give you credit because they were open minded enough about it, where we took planning and put it under that position transportation and economic development put it under that position. Several other Office of Organizational Development members, and I think doing that kind of sends the message to the department on to our external customers as well that MDOT we truly mean this and we really want to see how we can affect change because we do give out a lot of contracts and how do you make sure this equity in from doing this and that is what that position was created to do. And I think Terry's doing a great job slowly building a team and stop putting some things in place that I believe over time is going to be a fabric of the culture of the organization moving forward. 

Cranson: Yeah, that's Terry Slaughter, who is the CCEIO for MDOT, as you said, she's taking it, you know, slow and methodical, but with a long-term vision to make an impact. So, I guess just real briefly before we close, what is success for you look like? Out of this EIP initiative, you know both at the state level and nationally.

Ajegba: As I said during the ceremony, we want to do things about it is that we're going to measure this, right? I always believe when you create an initiative like this all, quite frankly, you're doing anything you don't measure, you don't know how well you’re doing. Uh, success to me is to see that we are slowly moving some of the identifiable barriers out of the way. Again, out of what I've said in there, some of our meetings is like the reciprocity, like that to me is the low hanging fruit where every region and really embrace that initiative where we, we brought the Ohio, Indiana and we do those things easily, right? By collaborating with them and but frankly, I'd like to see what this whole thing looks like in five years. We would put some things in place. These are the things would like to achieve in the next five years and I work hard to achieve them and measure. And see if the to me, that's what success looks like. And when we've done that, I think it creates an environment where a small DBE company can actually grow and stand on their own. 

Cranson: Yeah, and once again, that success across the board is going to be good, good for all of us. Good first society, good for the economy and good for certainly the transportation industry. So. Well, thank you, director. I really appreciate you taking the time to be here. 

Ajegba: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you for having me. I truly appreciate your interest in this issue as well. Thank you. 

Cranson: And we'll be back in just a minute to talk again with Phil Washington, one of the cofounders of the equity in Infrastructure project. 

MDOT announcement: The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you that when a vehicle collides with another vehicle, person or other object, it is a crash, not an accident. By reducing human error, we can prevent crashes and rebuild Michigan roads. Safely. 

Cranson: Our second segment today continues the discussion about EIP, the equity and infrastructure project and I'm very pleased to have one of the cofounders of the project with me, Phil Washington, who is the CEO of the Denver International Airport. Mr. Washington, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us.

Washington: Thank you so much, Jeff. It's great to be here. 

Cranson: So, you talked about the momentum that's being generated for EIP with more CEOs from DOTs across the country signing on. And obviously there's both a symbolic and, we hope tangible component to this whole thing. Could you just talk high level about how you think this can actually move the needle for DBEs and other underrepresented groups in transportation. 

Washington: Well, I think a couple of things that I think about, one is increasing generational wealth. This administration declared through the President's executive order that the president wanted to increase generational wealth and underserved communities. And so, one of the things that we thought about that could accomplish that was through contracting. And so, the idea of asking infrastructure agencies around the country to pledge to significantly increase the amount of minority business prime contract awards was something that we thought was very, very doable and still do. And so, to have as we did last week, six state DOTs to commit to that and take a pledge; to increase minority prime contract awards with the result of increasing generational wealth and underserved communities is very, very significant and we think we're on our way to having more states do just that

Cranson: So. You know, social equity should go without saying is the goal of all of us from a really practical standpoint, could you talk about, you know, the rising tide and why, you know why it it's so important for society and for the economy that the more people you enable to participate the more businesses you know the more we all flourish. 

Washington: Yeah, I think you know one I I've always said that this effort is an economic development program is an economic development project and the idea is that if small and minority businesses, especially black and brown businesses receive an awarded prime contract. It stands to reason that those small businesses will hire people from underserved communities, because those businesses, those small and minority businesses, are oftentimes from those underserved communities. And so, if those businesses receive prime awards and then turn around and hire people from those underserved communities, those individuals will pay taxes on their earnings. I can see, you know, house purchases, home purchases increasing. I can see crime being reduced in those underserved communities because people have jobs. There are all kinds of residual benefits from this effort that we have been pushing forward through the equity and infrastructure projects. So, a rising tide really. Does benefit everyone concerned. It benefits those communities. It benefits the federal government, state government, all levels of government, and so that is why we're so passionate about it. 

Cranson: Talk about some of the things that you've done both in your role at DIA and then previous career opportunities to enhance this and what kind of brought you to the point to join John Porcari and founding EIP.

Washington: Uh, well, it's a huge passion of mine, has been a passion of mine since I was a youngster. Actually, I can remember seeing people building infrastructure in my community, which was a public housing on the south side of Chicago. I saw people building infrastructure that did not look like me, and when I looked to get a job of building my own community, I was either told that I was not trained or I'd lacked the experience and so that stuck with me from the time I was 12/13/14 years old, I went into the United States Military and work to try to level the playing field even in the military, supported women in combat arms units and that was not the case when I first went into the military, got into transportation and looked to level the playing field with minority businesses. And coached and mentored women. I like to point out to people that during my six years at LA Metro we produce six CEO's and other places and so educating, and training and mentoring has always been something that that I've been very, very passionate about. John Picari and I have been friends for many years and in the run up and in working on the Biden Harris transition team and the Policy Committee, we thought about how we can operationalize o the president's executive Order Executive Order 13985 that talks about advancing racial equity through the federal government funding. And so, we thought about contracting. And so, we created this effort of equity and equity and procurement and equity and infrastructure and I'm happy to see that has flourished over the last year or so that we put this together. 

Cranson: While we're on that topic, let's talk about, you know. What you're doing currently, and you know what opportunities are in the future, President Biden has nominated you to be administrator of the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, which is part of US DOT it’d be working with Secretary Buddha, judge talk about that and how you think you can further not just these objectives, but some other goals of yours. 

Washington: Well, first of all, let me just say that I'm honored by the nomination. I'm honored by that nomination. I'm honored by the trust that the President has in me to lead this agency. I'm honored by Secretary Buttigieg. Having the trust in me, along with the Deputy Secretary as well, so very, very honored. I'm going through the process right now. We'll see where that goes. But you know, I think thinking about that position, I will do the same things that I've done for the last 45 years of my adult life, which is number one; safety and also operationalizing equity in the infrastructure realm. And so that is what I've done for 45 years. I will continue to do that from the equity standpoint. And you know where we are right now in aviation, we need more people, we need more women in aviation. We need people of color in aviation, we need to stand up a qualified workforce for the next 15 to 20 years. And this is not just an aviation, this is in all modes of transportation. And so, I will continue what I've been doing for 45 years and that is leading by example. 

Cranson: So is that a lot, I mean you talked about training and certainly diversifying the people in the aviation industry, but is that, I mean we know that flights have come roaring back. You know, since the height of the pandemic and people are traveling, I guess we could talk about the juxtaposition or contradiction of people telling pollsters how bad the economy even while they're buying plane tickets and traveling. But is a lot of that challenge in, in hiring and getting qualified pilots in the pipeline is that a big part of it?

Washington: I think you know the challenge is that aviation has are well documented, you know, you know, not just aviation. But I again I think in every mode of transportation there is a need to stand up a qualified workforce in every mode and that is not just pilots, that is mechanics, that is controllers, that is rail technicians. If you think about the rail industry that is all kinds of needs that we have. And so, training becomes very, very important in all of these. And I would approach any job that I'm in, whether it is FAA or whether it is my job here running the third busiest airport in the world, which is never a national airport, whatever my role is. I will approach it the same way, and that is bringing people into an industry where they are needed and that is looking out for the safety aspects of this industry and other infrastructure modes. I will come to that with a level of experience that that I think is needed.

Cranson: Wow third, busiest in the world. I as a skier, I can testify that it is busy, but I didn't know it was that busy. Wow. Yes, absolutely. Thank you very much for your time today. I really appreciate it. And I want to wish you the best of luck with both the EIP project going forward and with the FAA nomination. 

Washington: Thank you so much, Jeff and I appreciate your interest in the equity and infrastructure project. And you know we're moving forward with it. Thank you.

Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. To subscribe to show notes and more, go to Apple Podcasts and search for talking Michigan transportation. I also want to thank Randy Debler for his work producing this week's podcast Jesse Ball, and got social media coordinator proofreads the show notes and helps with all kinds of things related to getting this done every week, and Courtney Bates, who does a great job putting the podcast together in a format so it can be posted and Sarah Koenigsknecht in our office, who also helps with the production and the transcription of the podcast.