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High-speed rail agency ordered to reach more minority businesses

Photo: Shown is an artist's conception of the San Jose stop on the California high-speed rail system. Credit: California High-Speed Rail AuthorityThe California High-Speed Rail Authority was ordered Thursday to greatly expand its outreach to and inclusion of small and disadvantaged businesses, concluding a civil rights complaint filed last year with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

According to the decision released by federal officials, the rail authority -– which is tasked with building an ambitious high-speed line from San Francisco to Southern California that could cost as much as $65 billion -– must create a development program for small and disadvantaged businesses, specify an officer in charge, compile a directory of all firms that are eligible to participate, and create a business advisory council within 60 days.

The rail authority must also conduct an availability and disparity study within one year, according to a copy of Thursday's decision from the Federal Railroad Administration.

"We're very pleased with the decision," said Oren Sellstrom, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. "It's a complete vindication of what the minority business community has been saying."

Sellstrom said his group began looking into the rail authority's contracting practices over a year ago. The complaint alleged the authority's contracting policies appeared neutral but had a severely disparate impact on minority-owned businesses.

Sellstrom said Thursday's decision shows the rail authority is "nothing better than an anti-competitive old boy's network that needs to be broken up."

Rachel Wall, a spokeswoman for the authority, said the agency has already embarked on many of the changes ordered by the federal agency, including the construction of a small business program that she said is nearly complete. The authority is also using other strategies to better engage with small businesses, such as hosting industry forums, she said.

"This is the largest infrastructure project this state has seen in more than 50 years. It is imperative that we work with our business community to provide opportunities for business at all levels -– the project will be stronger for the effort," Wall said.

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Photo: An artist's concept of the San Jose stop on the California high-speed rail system. Credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority

 
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