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5 Dec 2010

Minority firms worry high-speed-rail project will pass them by

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December 5, 2010 Category: Color Of Money Posted by:

orlando sentinel


A half dozen African American contractors are worried they won’t be considered for a piece of the $2.6 billion high-speed train between Orlando International Airport and Tampa.


Eight major teams have formed to bid on the lucrative project to design, build, operate and maintain the system, which would run largely along Interstate 4.


Some of the biggest names in the state, nation and world are part of the prospective consortiums, including Bechtel, Siemens, Parsons Transportation, Talgo, Skanska, Hubbard Construction and Alstom. Such companies can have billions in assets and annual sales.


But none of the teams has reached down to pick any small, local companies, much less those owned primarily by blacks or Hispanics based in Orlando.


“They seem to say the right words … [but] they have not performed and reached out,” said Brian Butler of JCB Construction Inc., which specializes in site-development and construction-management services.


Butler said he’s concerned that even if he or other local minority contractors get work, it will just be the scraps.


“You can have that drumstick because I don’t like drumsticks. Are you really sharing?” he asked.



Major bidders and the state Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the high-speed train, say minority companies need to be patient. The jobs are coming, they say, but it is too early in the process to make any binding promises.


“At the end of the day, a lot of the work will have to be done by some of the small firms at the local level,” said Nazih Haddad, FDOT’s high-speed project manager.


Timothy Brown, spokesman for a high-speed team that includes Alstom, Virgin, VINCI and PBS&J, said, “We have already compiled a list of thousands of interested minority businesses, in addition to the ones we work with all the time, and we know that they will be an important part of our success.”


Yet that hasn’t eased the fears of Butler and other companies, which include R L Burns Inc., a general-contracting firm; Tekontrol Inc., which offers training, logistical support and engineering expertise; WBQ Design & Engineering Inc., a civil- and transportation-engineering consultant; Brindley Pieters & Associates Inc., a civil-engineering firm; and GCI LLC, a project-management company.


Advocating for them is Orlando City Council member Daisy Lynum, whose district is made up largely of African-Americans.


“If they can’t get a job, who is going to get a job?” said Lynum, who added that she does not have a financial stake in the companies, nor is she being paid by them.


Collectively, the local contractors have completed millions of dollars’ worth of work on the new Amway Center, an Amtrak rail station in Sanford and even restrooms at Orlando International Airport. Orlando and Greater Orlando Aviation Authority officials say they are competent professionals in good standing with the agencies.


“We have everything that anybody can bring,” Lynum said.


The winning team likely will be picked late next year. Construction is projected to start in late 2012, with operations beginning in 2015.


In the meantime, Haddad said, minority companies should knock on the collective doors of the big partnerships.


“If you are really interested, reach out to these folks,” Haddad said. “They are out there.”


FDOT, he said, has a website dedicated to identifying small and minority companies and making them available to larger companies. The state also held several sessions for companies large and small to meet, mingle and pitch one another, Haddad said.


“I feel like we have attempted to engage everyone involved,” he said.


Haddad said that nearly 8.2 percent of all the money that would be spent on the train — or more than $213 million — must, by state and federal law, be spent on minority companies, which includes ones owned by women.


Lynum argues more money should be set aside because some local governments, such as Orlando and Orange County, make at least one-quarter of any public-works project available for female and minority contractors.


“If you are getting chump change,” Butler said, “you will always be chump change.”

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