SANBAG: Less than 1 percent of $450 million widening project awarded to disadvantaged contractors
By Chris Levister –
A little more than two years ago, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known as the stimulus bill, a $787 billion dollar booster shot to get Americans working.
After the rising tide of economic stimulus that Mr. Obama promised would “lift all boats” from the depths of economic crisis, critics argue that the plan has not only failed to create jobs among African- Americans, and other historically disadvantaged people including women, but it has shut out minority-owned road building contractors nationwide and re-ignited the fierce debate over California’s ban on race and sex preferences.
“You can take a drive on the I-215 expansion route from the I-10 through downtown San Bernardino to University Parkway and there’s a very high probably that you won’t see one Black working on that freeway construction project,” said Keith Ashby, a retired minority contractor and civil engineer.
Reacting to a report that Inland area minority-owned businesses received less than 1% of the $128 million award of stimulus funds for the massive widening of Interstate 215 north of downtown San Bernardino, Assembly Member Wilmer Amina Carter (D-Rialto) says she will launch an inquiry into the process of identifying who gets federally funded road building contracts.
“California hides behind Proposition 209,” she said. Carter said the controversial ban on minority preferences that California voters approved in 1996, allows the state to shield ethnic and gender contracting data thus effectively placing a distinct set of hurdles in front of minority groups seeking to increase their representation in road building contracting.
“I’m very concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding a project of this size,” said Carter.
The widening project is the country’s fourth-largest stimulus investment in a road project. The four-phase project is carried out by Caltrans in association with San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG) and the Federal Highway Administration.
Highway officials predict the funds will bring more than 8,000 jobs – 2,000 jobs per year to the Inland region hit hard by the housing crisis, where more than half of the home sales are foreclosures.
“Without these funds, this project could have been delayed, contributing to the Inland Empire’s existing high unemployment rate,” said Senator Barbara Boxer during an April 2010 tour of the freeway project.
“The Underutilized/ Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (UDBE) goal for the I-215 construction contract ($154m) was 1.83%,” said SANBAG executive director Deborah Barmack.
“Unfortunately, the contractor was not able to achieve that goal. Of the total amount of the contract, ($450 million), $772,000 went to UDBE contractors,” said Barmack.
She added, sometimes the federal requirement for minority business participation is low. “That would not be the level of employment that we would encourage on the part of contractors.”
“SANBAG evaluated the I-215 proposal carefully to determine if the contractor had made a good faith effort in contacting certified UDBE contractors in this region,” said Barmack in a written statement.
“It was determined that the contractor did make a good faith effort; however, the contractor was only able to achieve .436% UDBE subcontractor participation.”
“This is very unfortunate because the goal is set in an effort to gain participation by underutilized/ disadvantaged owned business enterprises,” said Barmack. “It does not speak to the ethnicity of employees working for the contractor or subcontractors. I do not have that type of information.”
The expansion project was awarded to local construction powerhouse Yeager Skanska, Inc., formerly known as E.L. Yeager Construction Company. The company was founded in 1919 and is based in Riverside. Yeager Skanska, Inc. operates as a subsidiary of Skanska USA Civil, Inc.
Barmack indicated as with most large complex construction projects contractors utilize a combination of highly-skilled union and in-house crews. She said 90 percent of the workers on the I-215 project are from the Inland Empire.
“While we urge contractors to hire underutilized/disadvantaged businesses, once the low bid contract is awarded we don’t dictate who the contractor hires,” said Barmack.
A two year old Caltrans program requires state transportation contractors to set aside at least 6.75 percent of their federal dollars for minority and female subcontractors or make good faith efforts to reach that goal.
June 2009 an association of white-owned contractors accused Caltrans in a lawsuit of “sideswiping the important principle of equal opportunity by using race, not lowest cost by a responsible bidder, to decide who gets government road and highway contracts,” said Sharon Browne, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney who filed the suit on behalf of the Associated General Contractors, San Diego chapter.
Last week U.S. District Judge John Mendez of Sacramento ruled that Caltrans had shown that without the preferences, its contracting practices discriminate against minorities and women.
A spokesman from Boxer’s office referenced to an August 14, 2009 letter written by the Senator to Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke applauding an Obama administration directive asking the Commerce Department and Small Business Administration to lead an effort to ensure that 23 percent of all federal contracts – including contracts in the ARRA – “will be awarded to small businesses, with an emphasis on minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses.”
“The ARRA represents an unparallel opportunity to allow our small businesses to help drive our recovery as a nation,” Boxer wrote. “To achieve this goal, we must do everything we can to make sure these businesses have the information they need to participate in ARRA programs and contracts.”
The National Black Chamber of Commerce, Conference of Black Mayors and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, charge the Obama administration isn’t enforcing key portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They say as a result, Black contractors in states across the country are being shut out of federal highway construction work.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood admits the government needs to do more.
“We plead guilty in part. We’ve held DBE (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise) workshops in 56 cities. I’ve sent letters to every governor. We need to do a better job of communicating and ensuring that every disadvantaged/ women owned business has the information about what money is in the states, and how they can access it and how they can put people to work.”
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