With planning in the works for BART’s PHASE II Program, a $6.5 billion downtown San Jose/Santa Clara extension, one VTA official is pushing to ensure minority-owned businesses get their fair share of contracts.
“It’s the right thing to do and with my position, I have the ability to make changes,” said John White, the transit agency’s chief procurement officer.
During the first seven months of its fiscal year, VTA awarded 260 contracts, totaling more than $2.4 million, to small businesses.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) anti-discrimination program provides socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses with a fair opportunity to compete for federally-funded transportation contracts.
Taking it further, White is petitioning the state Legislature to increase the cap of contracts set aside for small businesses from $150,000 to $250,000.
“Overall, we’re looking to have 20% of our money going to DBEs and 30% to small businesses,” White said.
White is breaking up large contracts to make them more accessible for small businesses. He also created a mentorship program and a plan guaranteeing companies are paid within 15 days, which helps them make payroll and buy the goods and services needed to support contracts.
“We’re looking to drive that same initiative down to our new BART construction contracts so prime contractors will also have to pay their certified subcontractors on a timely basis,” White said.
Angie Wong, owner of electrical contractor Ojo Technology, said cash flow is essential for small businesses.
“You can’t tell vendors, ‘I’ll pay you when I get paid,’ Wong said. “VTA knows the pain points of small businesses and it’s commendable they are trying to relieve these challenges.”
Wong has worked on various projects for VTA as both a prime and subcontractor, including installing video surveillance systems at light rail stations.
“VTA is very good at organizing networking events when big projects are coming up,” Wong said. “We get to talk with the larger companies and make connections. That’s really helpful and helped us get into the public arena on big projects worth $1 million to $2 million.”
VTA hired Minority Business Consortium, which helps minority-owned businesses and veterans gain access to contracts, to assist in maximizing opportunities for diversity on the BART project.
Minority Business Consortium partner Walter Wilson said White has “changed the narrative.”
“John White is really leaning in,” Wilson said, “in a way we’ve never seen any procurement officer do in addressing the disparities of contracting. He’s personally reaching out and making sure people know this is a real opportunity.”
VTA also offers community outreach, training and DBE certification.
“We’re having webinars with these individual groups and holding their hands, saying this is how you get involved with this process,” Wilson said.
Olga Medina, manager of VTA’s Business Diversity Program, said VTA is trying to remove barriers.
“We have big projects coming down the line and we want to make sure we get diverse businesses on board to get a piece of that pie,” Medina said. “We have the funds, projects and training academies so they can be successful in the government contracting world.”
Reginald Rashid, owner of R-Tek, a general contracting business, said most organizations fall short when it comes to doing outreach to minority-owned businesses.
“We get invited to meetings, but they’re just trying to check the boxes and already have other people in mind. VTA seems pretty serious about bringing veteran and minority-owned businesses in the door,” he said.
White is also planning a 10-week construction management school for 100 companies a year.
He said VTA should not have to go to Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Dallas to get contractors for large jobs.
“If we can start developing them on smaller projects now, when the next big project comes along…some of these companies can take a bigger share,” White said. “We’re trying to build that capacity in the Bay Area.”