Infrastructure investments help grow small and minority owned businesses

Congressman Kweisi Mfume (Courtesy Photo)

By Congressman Kweisi Mfume

The American Jobs Plan can rebuild our nation’s physical infrastructure while creating opportunities for small and minority owned businesses to employ more people

As each day passes, we feel closer to the moment when we can finally say this pandemic is behind us. While we are not there yet, the sacrifice and fortitude it has taken us to make it this far should not go unrecognized or go unappreciated.

As we prepare to build back a better America after the pandemic, I convened a congressional hearing this week as Chair of the Contracting and Infrastructure Subcommittee for the U.S. House Small Business Committee to discuss the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on small businesses and to examine how federal investments in American infrastructure networks can help small and minority owned businesses.

People across America rely on our infrastructure networks to commute to work, access clean water, communicate with each other, light their homes, transport items by rail, and more. Despite the importance of our national infrastructure, it arguably has become an afterthought to some policymakers over the past several decades in many respects.

Fortunately, there is a growing understanding that our existing infrastructure networks and their limited lifecycles require immediate attention. That is one reason why President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, and many members of the U.S. House of Representatives plan to revitalize the American infrastructure networks through major federal investments over the next decade. The investments would modernize 20,000 miles of highways and roads, repair 10,000 bridges, improve airports and ports, and expand transit and rail into new communities. The investments would also eliminate lead pipes in drinking water systems, provide high-speed broadband, upgrade schools and federal buildings, replace buses and rail cars, and so much more. By all accounts, these efforts represent a new vision for America that will be good for the environment and make our nation’s infrastructure more equitable community by community.

Investing in America’s infrastructure networks will also benefit the nation’s small businesses because small businesses rely on our infrastructure systems to access customers and suppliers, boost business operations, and create new demand for goods and services. Beyond that, investing in America’s infrastructure networks will mean new business opportunities for many small businesses that directly and indirectly support the development, modernization, and maintenance of the infrastructure networks in question. In the construction industry for example, it is estimated that there are 3 million small businesses which employ over 82 percent of all employees in this sector.

Put simply, a federal investment in infrastructure is an investment in small businesses. That’s true because there are a number federal safeguards in place to ensure small businesses participate in the competitive procurement processes for federal contracts and earn their fair share of federal contracting dollars.  For instance, there is a government-wide goal requiring that 23 percent of all eligible prime contracting dollars be spent with small businesses, and the Small Business Association (SBA) works to ensure that this goal is met or surpassed.  Other goals exist for specific subsets of small contractors at the prime and subcontracting level.  We seek 5 percent participation by small and disadvantaged businesses, 5 percent by women-owned small businesses, 3 percent by service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses, and 3 percent in Historically Under-utilized Business Zones.  Once again, the SBA is responsible for making sure these goals are met or surpassed.

The current infrastructure plan would also create contracting programs, administered by the SBA, that reserve contracts for underserved small businesses through dedicated opportunities and sole-source opportunities.  Additionally, there are reserved contracting programs in place at the state and local levels whenever federal dollars are involved with infrastructure spending.  The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program is designed to enable women and minority-owned small firms to compete for federally funded contracts led by state and local agencies. It is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s most important tool for remedying the effects of discrimination and leveling the playing field in transportation-related projects.

These programs are vital to the wellbeing of the small business community and will help to guarantee that small businesses have a seat at the table when it comes to infrastructure spending and contracting opportunities using federal dollars. The American Jobs Plan will create thousands of these contracting opportunities. I want to use this opportunity and use my oversight role in Congress to take a closer look at the small business programs and ensure we are maximizing small business participation in contracting at the federal, state, and local levels. This week’s hearing was just a part of that process.

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