San Jose VTA backed off promise to hire diverse firms, activists say
A light rail train arrives at the Metro/Airport station in San Jose. Photo by Marie Louise Leone.

Civil rights groups claim VTA backpedaled on a pledge to give substantial contract work to local minority-owned businesses on a major infrastructure project.

The leader of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP sent a letter to VTA CEO Carolyn Gonot on Oct. 28 complaining the agency assured the NAACP, the Asian Law Alliance and La Raza Roundtable that roughly 20% of contract work for part of the BART extension project would go to disadvantaged businesses, specifically minority-owned companies. According to the letter, the public transit agency shrank that goal to roughly 15% without informing the groups involved in the discussions.

“The difference between 15% and 20% is about $125 million that could be going back into our communities of color,” the letter states, referring to a track and tunnel work contract.

This project is one part of the BART Phase II extension—a $6.9 billion project to extend the Bay Area transit agency’s reach in San Jose. The U.S. Department of Transportation maintains a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program to help socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses, including minority-owned businesses, compete for federally-funded transportation contracts, such as the BART project. Earlier this year, VTA’s chief procurement officer said the agency is looking to have 20% of its overall money for the project go to DBEs and 30% to small businesses.

BART opened stations in San Jose and Milpitas last year. For the second phase, the agency wants to extend the line from Berryessa Transit Center to downtown San Jose and ending in Santa Clara.

Bob Nuñez, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, told San José Spotlight he and other civil rights groups felt blindsided when VTA announced the reduction in September.

“I still don’t understand,” Nuñez said. “If there were going to be changes we should have been told that.”

Bernice Alaniz, BART Silicon Valley business operations and communications director for VTA, said the track and tunnel project is one of four major construction contracts for the BART extension—each of which will have its own goals for giving a portion of work to disadvantaged and small businesses.

After analyzing the needs of the tunnel project, Alaniz said VTA set a goal to give 15% of the work to disadvantaged businesses, and 20% to small businesses.

“I think there may have been some initial early aspirational discussions of what might be desirable,” Alaniz told San José Spotlight. “But as we’re developing the contracts, you have to base those goals on what is achievable.”

As an example, she pointed out a specialized boring machine is needed for the track and tunnel portion of the BART extension. Only a handful of companies in the world make and operate these machines, which limits the transportation agency’s ability to allocate some of this work to local, minority-owned companies. Alaniz noted the other construction contracts will potentially contain work more suitable for local firms.

VTA needs to improve its communication, said Monica Mallon, founder of Turnout4Transit and San José Spotlight columnist. She noted simple misunderstandings could be easily cleared up if the agency was more proactive in communicating its decision-making process to local stakeholders.

“That’s just a huge weakness of the agency,” Mallon told San José Spotlight. “I feel like most of the things people get upset about are not that big a deal, and once it gets explained and everything settles down, it’s pretty much fine.”

Victor Garza, president of La Raza Roundtable, told San José Spotlight he hoped VTA was serious about investing in communities of color in the county, and is still disappointed by how the agency handled things.

“We are of course very offended and angry—we’re not going to let this go by this easily,” Garza said.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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