Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater made his debut on the Washington political scene when Clinton took office in 1992 and appointed him administrator of the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). A bona fide “Friend of Bill,” Slater held several government positions in Arkansas when Clinton was governor. At the FHA, he created the 160,000-mile National Highway system and a financing program that enabled hundreds of transportation projects to be built earlier than planned at no extra cost to the nation’s taxpayers.
Slater’s hard work was rewarded again on February 14, 1997, when he was appointed Secretary of Transportation-an impressive valentine by anyone’s standards.
This summer Slater sat down with our Washington correspondent, Joyce Jones, to discuss minority business opportunities at the Department of Transportation (DOT), and how entrepreneurs have fared under his watch.
How did the Adarand vs. Pena decision impact your effectiveness in a new office?
rodney slater: Adarand forced us to devise more sophisticated ways of meeting our objective. It ensured that all businesses have an equal opportunity to take advantage of DOT-assisted contracting opportunities. We issued a new disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) regulation this year that significantly improves our ability to defend our program against legal challenge and provide a workable, flexible tool for our recipients to use, ensuring there is a level playing field for all contractors.
The administration has been criticized by minorities and small entrepreneurs who say that while the dollar amounts may be higher, they’re getting fewer contracts.
slater: From 1992 until the DOT published its new DBE rule, our program requirements were the same as in previous administrations. I believe our commitment to the success of the program has been far greater. Our programs do not-and legally cannot-guarantee a certain market share for any one group of DBE contractors. Under TEA-21, opportunities for all contractors are increasing. But there are legitimate questions about what the breakdown is for women and minorities.
How have state anti-affirmative action movements impacted affirmative action efforts at the federal level?
Slater: The anti-affirmative movement initiatives in [those states] have no effect at all on the implementation of the DBE program. As a condition of federal transportation assistance, the DOT’s DBE program remains mandatory in all states. Anti-affirmative action statutes in those states specifically provide that they continue to implement affirmative action programs that are required as a condition of federal funding.
What opportunities are there for minority and small business owners with the DOT?
Slater: The department’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization has implemented various outreach, training and technical referral, and financial assistance programs that are designed to help DBEs become more competitive in the pursuit of contract-ing opportunities. In addition, its Website provides information on these programs and other DBE assistance programs available throughout the federal system. We’re also going to have a one-stop shop in every state where people interested in doing business in any of the transportation modes will be able to get information.
Are there areas that are more active than others?
Slater: Major infrastructure jobs that deal with the whole transportation enhancement program