It was Elton Mason who got the ball rolling, a Kirkland-based trucker whose complaint led to a scathing federal report that concluded that minority-owned businesses were not getting anywhere near their fair share of work on the downtown waterfront tunnel.
In February 2012, Mason, owner of Washington State Trucking, complained that he failed to get a contract worth several million dollars to haul dirt away from the launch area in Sodo. “I was told I wasn’t the low bid, but I was the low bid,” Mason insists.
Had he secured the contract, Mason tells Seattle Weekly, he would have been able to grow the trucking firm he started two years ago from a couple of workers to as many as 50 employees.
After investigating, the Federal Highway Administration concluded that Seattle Tunnel Partners, the chief contractor on the $3.1 billion Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project (which includes $787 million in federal money), has paid out just 1 percent to minority businesses, even though they are obligated to give 8 percent. Around $91 million has been earmarked for subcontracts with local “disadvantaged business enterprises.”
At stake are federal funds that could be suspended or eliminated for the tunnel and future state projects if the problems aren’t fixed.
The FHA probe that culminated in a highly critical 20-page report issued last month has prompted regional NAACP leaders to call on the Washington State Department of Transportation to terminate its contract with Seattle Tunnel Partners.
“This about greed, money,” says Mason. “There’s a lot of discrimination and collusion involved in state contracts. My hope is that this will be the downfall of the good old buddy system.”
STP is led by Spain-based Dragados and California-based Tutor-Perini. In order to win the $1.14 billion bid and begin construction, both firms agreed to the hiring goal of 8 percent.
The FHA report did note that STP project manger Chris Dixon told investigators that STP felt the 8 percent target was unrealistic because much of the work requires larger companies capable of doing very specialized tunnel construction work.
Dr. Sheley Secrest, NAACP Vice President for the Alaska Washington Oregon State Area Conference, isn’t buying that argument.
“The project is now 33 percent complete, and yet less than 1 percent of the subcontractors are minority-owned,” Secrest argues. “This is not acceptable to the NAACP. We want full inclusion, and we are asking that the contract be terminated – effective immediately.”
Secrest and other NAACP officials also want to know whether WSDOT thoroughly scrutinized both companies before allowing them to proceed on one of the most expensive undertakings in Seattle’s history.
“This is a very serious issue,” Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson tells SW today. “Our federal funds are in jeopardy.
Peterson says she has instructed the WSDOT administrator assigned to oversee STP to make sure requests for proposals are being structured correctly.
Also, the agency, adds Peterson, is working through the state Attorney General’s Office to get a “neutral observer” involved. The AG has hired attorney Richard Mitchell to review the federal report and decide, says Peterson, “what to do next to hold STP accountable.” Recommendations are expected in the next couple of weeks.