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Posted: July 01, 2011

Train a-comin’

The Disadvantaged Business Enterprise/Small Business Enterprise Program at metro Denver's Regional Transportation District has won kudos for its aggressive approach - and impressive results.

Eric Peterson

RTD_PhilWashington_jul11.jpg

In 2004, Regional Transportation District General Manager Phillip Washington "was tasked to take an already successful Disadvantaged Business Enterprise/ Small Business Enterprise Program
to another level," he remembers.

At the time, the ongoing light-rail expansion dubbed FasTracks was in its infancy, and Washington, then RTD's assistant GM of administration, and his team focused on fostering public participation, training, support programs and compliance.

It took Washington and company a year to draw up and implement the FasTracks DBE/SBE Program. The hard work paid off: Seven years later, the program is firmly established as one of the best of its kind in the United States. Case in point: Of the nearly $1 billion FasTracks dollars spent to date, roughly 20 percent was committed to disadvantaged and small-business enterprises, and 90 percent of those businesses are local.

A few basic points on the policy: To be designated a disadvantaged business enterprise, a company typically must be majority-owned by minorities or women. RTD qualifies small business enterprises based on annual revenues under about $20 million and majority owners with a net worth under $750,000. Such programs are taken into consideration by federal agencies when funding transit projects.

Despite the program's successes, Washington, whose ascent up RTD's ranks mirrors that of the program he helped create, is not done yet. "We continue to improve and recalibrate," he says.

Washington attributes the program's success to open communication channels with the contractors, DBE/SBE owners, and the community at large. "The bonding program that we implemented a couple of years ago has removed one of the major barriers for small and minority-owned construction firms to get work. Our practice of breaking up large jobs into small, manageable chunks of work has allowed DBEs and SBEs to bid on work that they would otherwise not be able to bid on."

Washington says the program has become germane to RTD's organizational culture. "The mandatory training of all of our project managers on the DBE/SBE Program has allowed our managers to understand the importance of the program, and including it as an individual manager performance evaluation goal has also emphasized the program.

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"The support and guidance of the RTD board of directors has been paramount," he adds. "Their insistence on providing a level playing field for small and disadvantaged businesses has been a major reason why the program has been a success."

Barbara Brohl, a member of the RTD board of directors and chairwoman for its SBE/DBE committee, calls the program "a great opportunity" for participants that not only broadens the work force, but also improves the quality of the work. "I advocate for having SBE/DBE firms' participation at all levels of the project - from engineering, architecture and program management, to trucking, landscaping and artwork," Brohl says.

She makes a strong and succinct case for the program's means and its ends. "We are a public agency, and it is important that the public is represented," she says. The program "creates an inclusive environment and allows our SBE/DBE firms to gain experience through the mentorship of a larger prime contractor. This allows for a diversity of ideas and methods of implementation, which usually leads to better work, lower costs and a collaborative work environment."

"If you compare RTD to other agencies, you'll see RTD's goals are double and sometimes triple what most agencies' goals are," says RTD Manager of Civil Rights Christina Tubb. "We just typically shoot higher." Lofty goals are good, but the proof is in the pudding, she adds. "We are consistently hitting our targets, so we are comfortable in maintaining a high standard."

Tubb commends Washington for his role. "Phil is a very strong advocate of the DBE/SBE Program," she says. "Not only did he start it with RTD, he was the instigator to expand it. Less than a year ago, he decided it wasn't big enough and needed to be under a civil-rights umbrella, so he created a civil-rights division within RTD." Tubb says the Federal Transit Administration considers RTD's DBE/SBE Program a prototype and often submits the original RTD plan to other transit agencies around the country as an example.

The primary hurdle to clear in order to continue to grow the program, Tubb says, is largely spotlighting lower profile projects, including maintenance, IT upgrades and other work on already established "base systems." Such opportunities often fall by the wayside without DBE/SBE bids, especially in the shadow of FasTracks. Projects are posted online and contractors receive complementary e-mail updates on projects open for bid, but sometimes this is not enough.

"I just think they forget about it," Tubb says. "There are quite a few opportunities for the disadvantaged business and the small business in the base-system work, and there are projects that are more easily attainable for the small business because of the size of them."

RTD's DBE/SBE targets are often hit through subcontracting: Prime contractors on RTD projects such as Denver Transit Partners and Kiewit Construction also have DBE and SBE liaisons who work to ensure the targets are met or exceeded by awarding subcontracts to qualified firms.

One such subcontractor is Triunity Engineering & Management, a Denver-based electrical and controls engineering firm. CEO Jonnie Thomas, an African-American, started the business with his brother in 2003 and first worked on an RTD project - T-REX on I-25 in Denver - in 2005. Triunity has since leveraged its T-REX experience to land contracts with other transit agencies in Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston and Salt Lake City.

"We've developed a good relationship with RTD," says Thomas, noting that the 15-employee Triunity has worked with large firms Kiewit and Carter & Burgess on RTD projects. "We've been very successful being on winning teams for FasTracks projects."

RTD's DBE/SBE Program "does get your foot in the door, but it can't be the end-all," he adds. "It doesn't guarantee you work." Thomas says Triunity's marketing is focused on prime contractors, and a solid track record is most important. "They recognize the firm as being successful - that's what we sell number one."

But Thomas is also quick to commend RTD's DBE/SBE Program. "We do work all over the country, and that's one of the best programs I've seen. I don't know any other transit agency that puts as much work into getting the word out."

"In some cities, all the work is done by mega-firms, and they're located somewhere else," Thomas says. "RTD invests in the community, and then I'm hiring locally - that's the benefit to Denver. I hope other agencies take note."

RTD's Washington has given presentations to several conferences and federal agencies on RTD's DBE/SBE program. "The experience has been wonderful and has exposed our program as the national model that it is," he says. "The Federal Transit Administration has praised our program and rated it as one of the best in the country. The DBE program is audited frequently by the FTA and has been rated in the top tier. Doing bad or good on these audits has a significant impact on the receipt of federal funding and has a direct impact on RTD being set to receive $1 billion in federal money in July of this year."

But Washington is not keen to simply rest on his laurels. "We are always looking to improve our program," he says, elaborating on the new Workforce Initiative Now (WIN) program, which he describes as an "innovative and groundbreaking work force partnership" led by RTD, in coordination with the Community College of Denver, the Eagle P3's Denver Transit Partners, and the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver.

WIN "leverages existing training providers to assess, train and place community members into careers in transportation and transit construction," Washington says. "We have identified specific neighborhoods traversed by the Eagle P3 project based on key socioeconomic factors ... such as high levels of unemployment and/or rates of income below the poverty levels; therefore significant outreach efforts will be made in these neighborhoods to increase participation in and awareness of WIN program activities."

The program will focus on military veterans and youth participants, he adds.
If history is any guide, WIN looks like it could be a win-win for RTD and its contracting community, not to mention the metro Denver economy at large.

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Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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