The CTA Blue Line | Sun-Times files
Updated: August 8, 2013 6:54AM
Chicago has a huge opportunity, right now, to tackle the problem of unemployment, especially among African Americans.
The Chicago Transit Authority plans to invest a whopping $2 billion in taxpayer dollars in building new train cars to upgrade its massive public transit system. This is a good move for Chicago — its Blue Line trains alone are more than 40 years old.
If we’re smart about how we make these upgrades, our taxpayer dollars can not only improve Chicago’s rails, but also put thousands of Americans to work — many of them local residents and folks who’ve been locked out of the old economy, like people of color and women.
Right now, railcar manufacturing workers are 91 percent white and 84 percent male. By focusing on job creation in transit projects, we could begin to change that and stabilize our most vulnerable communities.
The CTA is on the verge of buying 845 new rapid transit cars. It’s standard practice to award this kind of work to whichever contractor offers the lowest price. But we need to step back and see the forest for the trees.
If we build these rail cars in China or Mexico, and create no new jobs for Americans or Chicagoans, we will have wasted a tremendous opportunity. If, however, we work to bring those jobs home, we could create a win for rail users, our communities and taxpayers. It’s a perfect opportunity for the city to show how to maximize job creation — especially for disadvantaged workers — while making necessary transit improvements.
That’s why a broad coalition of groups — from labor advocates to environmentalists — is calling on the CTA to consider job creation, not just cost, as part of the criteria used to decide which contractor wins the bid.
We’re asking that potential contractors do more than the bare minimum requirement of the federal Buy America law (60 percent American content) and disclose how many jobs they would create, and where. This disclosure requirement would allow taxpayers to know how their money is being spent. It would give us a chance to make sure we get a better return on our taxpayer investment.
The CTA could go even further and offer companies a voluntary incentive for re-shoring manufacturing and spurring good American jobs. With this incentive, the companies bidding on publicly funded transportation equipment orders could get credit for the number and quality of Americans jobs that they would create from the contract, as well as an investment in training and economic development. The agency then could compare the bids based on the cost of the transportation equipment, plus the employment benefits and overall economic impacts. As a result, we could position disadvantaged business owners and workers to have a shot at the promising opportunities created.
While the rest of the nation’s unemployment numbers are slowly declining, our city’s unemployment rate remains at a high 10.4 percent. And among Chicago’s African-American community, it’s much worse — a study last year showed that fully 19 percent of the city’s black population is without work — the third highest of any city in America. In our neighborhoods, we know the picture is actually even bleaker, with masses of working-age young and old adults not even tallied in unemployment studies.
With joblessness and poverty levels unacceptably high in Illinois — and across America — we can’t afford to miss this chance. Over the past 10 years, our country has spent $50 billion purchasing trains and buses, yet there’s been no significant increase in permanent American manufacturing jobs, or minority and woman-owned contracting opportunities.
We could put an end to that. And with so many sweeping, high-impact changes already under way, Chicago is the perfect place to do it. This is our big chance to use an innovative solution to tackle some of our country’s most pressing problems: joblessness, poverty, and pollution.
Let’s get America working again. Rails built this country. The way we engaged those builders — our choices about business models, locations, and destinations — shaped us, irrevocably. The shape we’ll be in decades from now will hinge on decisions, like this one, that we make today.
Naomi Davis is the president and founder of BIG: Blacks in Green and a fellow at Green For All.