Metro kept falling short of its internal goals for diversity among its private contractors, so the agency decided to lower the target for this year. The decision is drawing criticism from board members and lawmakers, who say the transit agency is not making an earnest attempt to share millions of dollars’ worth of lucrative contracts with female- and minority-owned businesses.
In an annual progress report released last month, agency officials acknowledged that they had fallen far short of their 2016 target for contracting work to “disadvantaged business enterprises,” or DBEs — small businesses primarily owned and managed by women or historically underrepresented minorities.
Metro’s internal goal for the year had been for at least 25 percent of contracting dollars to be awarded to those underrepresented businesses. In reality, they reached 11 percent.
So for 2017, the agency decided to lower the goal to 22 percent.
“We are going to be adjusting that target down, since we’re far below meeting it,” said Andrea Burnside, Metro’s chief performance officer.
Those federally-mandated targets are based in part on demographic data on the agency’s vendor directory. With fewer registered DBEs, Metro is allowed to lower its target. But the optics of the lowered expectations are particularly troubling to officials when the agency has dramatically ramped up spending on private contractors as part of the year-long SafeTrack maintenance program. The project is expected to cost about $120 million, and Metro has said that about half of the work is being done by contractors.
Concerns also were raised when Metro issued a request for proposals earlier this year for contractors who could help with track repairs. The DBE goal for that project was 15 percent.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) raised the issue at a recent House Oversight hearing and also sent a letter to Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, saying she was “alarmed” to see the lowered goals.
“There are more than enough minorities here [in the Washington region] to fulfill a goal of 22 percent when you’re doing construction labor, which can go all the way from simple to very skilled labor,” Norton said in an interview.
Wiedefeld agrees Metro can do better and that the agency has not made increasing diversity a priority among its contractors.
“I don’t think recently we’ve been doing a very good job of recruitment, of advertising what we do, of creating those partnerships,” Wiedefeld said. “It’s something that I will be working [on] with our people.”
But Norton argued that the plentiful track-reconstruction work on Metro, because of SafeTrack, should allow for minority and female business owners to have more opportunities than ever.
“You don’t do it to be nice, but you do it because of the long history of discrimination in the construction trade — as manifested in Metro as well,” Norton said. “We’re still in the process of curing historic discrimination.”
Metro’s 2015 performance for minority contracting wasn’t much better. The agency had also set a DBE goal of 25 percent; it hit 18.6, according to the Federal Transit Administration.
The lack of diversity among Metro’s contractors is a stark difference from the makeup of its workforce. Just over 74 percent of Metro’s workforce is black, 14.9 percent white, 4.6 percent Hispanic, 5.4 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, and 0.4 percent American Indian. (The remaining 0.5 percent identified as multiple races or did not include a race.) About 24 percent of Metro’s employees are women.
The problem also plagues other transit agencies across the country, according to the FTA’s database. At Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, 6.5 percent of contract dollars were awarded to disadvantaged businesses in 2016 — far short of that agency’s goal of 14 percent. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority barely surpassed half of its target of 26 percent for DBE participation.
But other agencies have performed better. At the Chicago Transit Authority last year, more than 50 percent of contract work was awarded to disadvantaged businesses. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit District hit 26.8 percent, and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia reached 18 percent, surpassing its target by three percentage points.
Metro officials say they are taking steps to address the problem, including hiring a new chief of fair practices, Franklin Jones, to help jump-start the agency’s programs that are aimed at encouraging diversity in hiring and awarding contracts.
They also plan to hold “kickoff meetings” with the agency’s procurement office to encourage more brainstorming on how to include minority business owners, and they’re planning to “unbundle” some contracts — breaking large projects into smaller pieces with contracts that small contractors can compete for.
Still, some remain concerned that, internally, Metro maintains an attitude that there aren’t enough qualified minority- or female-owned companies to meet its goals.
“The goals are there, they are in keeping with the requirements from the federal government, they are reasonable and they should be achieving it,” said board member Malcolm Augustine. “Their performance is just unacceptable.”
Augustine raised similar concerns at a board meeting last month, saying he regularly hears from fellow business owners who seek him out to ask about how they can contract with the agency.
“They’re available. They are out there. And they ask me all the time: ‘How can I get work from [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority]?’ ” Augustine said at the time.
That was the case for one business owner who spoke on the condition that she not be named because she is working as a subcontractor for Metro and fears she would lose out on future contracts for publicly criticizing the agency.
Even as a seasoned subcontractor, she joked that it requires dogged investigative skills and persistent hounding to learn what opportunities for DBEs are coming down the pipeline. Responsibilities for reaching out to DBEs are passed along from person to person, so she is never sure whom to contact at Metro.
And once her company has signed on as a subcontractor, she rarely gets the chance to speak directly with anyone at Metro about the terms of the deal or the agency’s expectations for the work that will be done.
“They don’t engage you at all. You don’t get alerts for contractors, you don’t know who you’re supposed to reach out to,” she said.
Some of the solutions to these problems, she said, would be incredibly simple. The agency does send a monthly newsletter. But why not create an email system that alerts DBE owners when new contracts are put out to bid? It’s a practice employed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, she said, and makes it much easier to track new opportunities.
The subcontractor was encouraged to hear that Metro intends to perform better in the coming year, but she remains skeptical.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of them not understanding how to reach out,” she said. “It’s just not a priority for them. If it were, it would be fixed by now. People have been complaining about this for a long time.”