Increasing Workforce Diversity on Light Rail Transit Projects

Funders Collaborative Hosts Learning Session on Jan. 21

When it comes to increasing workforce diversity and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) participation rates, the Interstate MAX LRT project in Portland, Oregon is a national model. Just ask Wanda Kirkpatrick, the Director of Diversity and Equal Opportunity at the Metropolitan Council, who admits that she has “studied the book, marked it up, and taken ideas from it.” The book in question is a case study that details the work of Bruce Watts, Senior Director of Diversity and Transit Equity at Tri-Met, to transform the Transit Authority’s DBE and workforce efforts. Watts recounted the experience to more than 35 participants at the Funders Collaborative Learning Session on Jan. 21.

Traveling 5.8 miles through Portland’s most diverse neighborhoods, Tri-Met wanted the construction of the $350 million Interstate MAX LRT project to create opportunities for local DBEs and workforce diversity. One of Tri-Met’s first actions was to hire Bruce Watts, a well-known community activist, to build capacity among minority and DBE businesses. They also set aggressive goals for the project, calling for 16 percent of the project’s capital spending to go to certified DBEs; 17 percent of labor hours to be performed by apprentices; and to ensure that the workforce reflected the diversity of the community.

Watts realized that to be successful, Tri-Met needed to hear from the community members. In a series of workshops, participants aired their frustrations with earlier projects and recommended a number of changes to Tri-Met, some of which were ultimately implemented. These included: Breaking contracts into smaller packages; using an RFP solicitation rather than a low-bid procurement; and building relationships between prime contractors and local subcontractors. In a truly groundbreaking move, Tri-Met invited these listening session participants to attend interviews with prime contractor finalist teams to ask DBE/Workforce questions. Watts recalls, “By the end of this session, the community could see how they were a partner in this process and contractors got to see the bar that Tri-Met set for community involvement and participation.”

Tri-Met has also supported DBEs through a variety of means. They held networking sessions with prime and key subcontractors and created a DBE Directory with information about bonding ability, past projects, safety record, and references. Tri-Met held DBE certification sessions so that businesses could become certified on the spot. The agency created tailored technical assistance along with seminars focused on finance, bonding, and other issues.

Watts made sure that Tri-Met’s procurement methods put a high value on DBE participation and workforce diversity. For starters, Tri-Met issued an RFP that evaluated contractors on their DBE plan. Tri-Met required that the prime hire a DBE coordinator who understood construction and the DBE community. Construction packages were broken into smaller sizes so that smaller firms could compete. Tri-Met’s contracts included financial penalties for contractors that weren’t meeting the 17 percent apprenticeship target. Tri-Met’s contracts also allowed it to place DBE subcontractors with any contractor that was not meeting its goals.

When construction on Interstate MAX began in August 2000 many argued that Tri-Met’s approach would increase costs and time. When the line opened in May 2004, the project was four months ahead of schedule and $25 million under budget and Tri-Met also exceeded its DBE goal by 2 percent and its workforce goal by 8 percent. As Watts likes to point out, in 1999 the prime contractor was a $40 million company. Because of their DBE/workforce diversity efforts in Portland, they are now a $400 million company. 

Met Council: Taking lessons from Portland

In the Twin Cities, the Metropolitan Council is taking some lessons from Portland. On January 20th, the Council held an all-day retreat with 45 attendees to develop strategies to address key issues affecting DBE and workforce goal achievement on the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit Line (CCLRT). Participants identified access to information, DBE capacity limitations, streamlined business assistance, and DBE/Prime relationships as key issues. The Council will publish the goals and recommendations and hold themselves accountable to them. 

The Council has also broken CCLRT work into smaller projects and has offered DBE/prime/major subcontractor networking events. The Council requires that prime contractors report to the DBE/Affirmative Action Joint Committee every month. Yet Kirkpatrick notes that workforce goals are set by the state and current contracting language only requires that contractors make a “good faith effort” to meet DBE/workforce participation goals. It is Kirkpatrick’s vision to create a workforce sourcing collaborative that would help contractors find workers to meet their needs and to develop contractual language that gives the Council more authority on DBE and workforce goals.