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SANDAG to launch new 'bench' for small biz contracting

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Taking a new approach at raising local business visibility, the San Diego Association of Governments has started a program to place the area's disadvantaged business and small business enterprises on a "bench" list, which can be viewed by prime contractors awarded certain SANDAG construction projects.

To make the list, a firm has to be certified as a DBE or SBE by the state Department of General Services. The firm then registers with SANDAG before completing the bench application. It will include a variety of architectural and engineering firms.

The program was rolled out as SANDAG and Caltrans District 11 announced $360 million in upcoming procurement for transportation infrastructure projects about to be advertised.

Projects include transit system improvements, freeway and bridge enhancements, landscape design and freeway corridors.

The goal is to have the bench list on the SANDAG website before advertising on the projects begins, which SANDAG Small Business Development Manager Elaine Richardson said could happen as soon as late August.

"When the procurement comes out, we want to say we already have these firms that are approved and are on the bench," Richardson said.

SANDAG and Caltrans recently co-sponsored the Architecture and Engineering Networking Fair, where prime contractors and subcontractors were given a heads up on the upcoming projects and the new program.

The event was well attended, said Mark Creveling, vice president of Simon Wong Engineering, a former DBE.

"There were well over 300 people," Creveling said, "and it was a complete mix of almost everyone who will be involved in these contracts."

Any project paid for with state funds has a mandated goal for inclusion of DBEs.

Creveling has previously chaired a committee of engineering firms in the goal of working with SANDAG to make DBEs better known, so the concept wasn't new to him when it was announced.

What was new, he said, was the great number of companies he made contact with at the fair.

About 15 or 20 of the DBE firms there were ones he'd never heard of before -- firms that may be more likely now to get a share of SANDAG work.

With the existing round of SANDAG contracts, for which firms were selected a few years ago, the primes and sub consultants were fixed for the life of the contract, Creveling said.

If a task order came up with a specific demand, and the prime didn't have a DBE sub to do the work, it was difficult to go outside the team to find someone to do it.

Creveling thinks the new bench program will help mitigate those situations.

"This bench will be populated by any firm that is, ideally, registered as either small business, minority -- a DBE, UDBE (Underutilized Disadvantaged Business Enterprise)," he said. "So he can go there and have this list of firms that have expressed willingness and their certification."

He also thinks the program will go a step further, by opening the door for more DBEs to start operations.

He said San Diego doesn't have enough in the industry to fulfill current goals.

Though responsible for compiling the list, SANDAG won't be vetting the applicants beyond assuring they are certified DBEs or SBEs.

"We didn't want to be responsible for the technical qualifications," Richardson said. "It's pretty much up to the prime. And they go through this process normally."

The application for the bench will include a section regarding representative projects and references.

If SANDAG continually hears about a firm on the list that doesn't appear to be qualified, steps will be taken to work with that firm and figure out the problems, Richardson added.

Creveling said that generally won't be a burden, despite wishing it was different.

"We as an industry had hoped that SANDAG would have done a higher level of qualifications -- you would need to have made some lesser level of minimum qualification to get on the bench," Creveling said. "But I can understand ... SANDAG really isn't geared or staffed to be able to do that for that many firms."

SANDAG hopes to have the list running online within the next couple of weeks.

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