Despite funding challenges in U.S. transportation, federal officials said there remain opportunities for small businesses to compete for contract resources.
About 70 people — local officials and small business owners — gathered Friday at the Westin Hotel in Birmingham for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2015 Small Business Transportation Summit.
Sponsored by the city, the summit was a way for small businesses to connect with the transportation sector, which is key to Birmingham’s past, present and future, Mayor William Bell said.
“Transportation is the engine that drives our nation’s economy,” Bell said. “Moving people around, moving goods around … it all has an impact on our economy.”
While much of the discussion focused on ways for contractor opportunities, state and federal representatives also talked about how dwindling and outdated funding streams threaten roads, rail and transit.
“We can say the American system is somewhat struggling and is sick, but when you look at some of the areas we represent in the South, we’re sort of on life support,” said Mississippi State Sen. Willie Simmons, chair of that state senate’s highways and transportation committee.
While money has decreased, maintenance and demands for roadways hasn’t. That forces tough decisions to find better better ways to use existing roads or innovative ways to deal with congestion, Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper said.
The demand to move goods is creating opportunities in freight movement in Alabama and across the Southeast.
Rising population and road congestion is putting pressure on using and improving waterways and linking them with rail and roadways said K. Scott Davies, acting director of the Maritime Administration.
An example is the inland “marine highway” system developing with the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, Davies said.
Freight rail infrastructure also is in line for potential development to keep goods moving, acting Region 3 Administrator Melvin Strong said. Part of that mix could be high-speed rail or other passenger services.
When asked about what federal resources could go toward developing a high-speed rail system in the Birmingham, Nashville and Atlanta corridors, Strong said projects of that expense and detail come down to getting matching funds, and that money is out there, though competitive.
“That will be up to you all to reach out for those funds, propose a plan, develop a project and match those funds out there,” Strong said.
John Wright, Jr., decades-long transit advocate, told federal panelists there should be more variance allowed on the local match requirement for “unenlightened” areas like greater Birmingham.
Typically, federal grants and money are funded 80 percent by the government and require a 20 percent local match.
Wright cited the area’s past failed efforts to build regional support for matches that would have boosted roads and transit in the area.
Other agencies represented include the Alabama State Port Authority, the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Birmingham Construction Industry Authority, Birmingham Airport Authority and ALDOT.
Small business owners in attendance said the forum was informative like Taunya Miles, owner of Plenary Assets, LLC, a document preparation and administrative support company since 2013.
Miles has worked with contractors on airport and ALDOT projects. As a businesswoman in a parallel industry to construction, her volume of work can rise and fall with the economy.
“It’s allowed me to tap into some other areas to see what else is out there,” Miles said of the forum, adding that she plans to build relationships and position herself to help with federal transit and rail program projects she previously didn’t realize also were happening in the region.
Friday’s summit is one of several the Transportation Department’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization and has had in recent years nationwide. Also on Friday, there was a meeting of the African American Mayors Association, of which Bell is president.
The summit was preceded by a closed-door roundtable discussion between member mayors and Deputy Transportation Secretary Victor Mendez.
updated February 07, 2015 at 10:52 AM