The Federal Highway Administration will investigate allegations by two Bay Area construction firms that Caltrans violated federal regulations by not meeting goals for minority-owned business participation during the bidding process of the Bay Bridge's east span replacement project.
In June, the owners of Port-O-Walls Systems of Sonoma and Oakland-based Bay Line Concrete Cutting and Coring filed a complaint with the civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration seeking to block funding from the long-delayed billion-dollar project.
The companies allege that the prime contractor, Kiewit/FCI/Mason, which was awarded the lucrative contract in January, did not engage in a bona fide effort to recruit so-called DBEs, or Disadvantaged Business Enterprises, even though they told Caltrans that they would do so.
The construction firms accuse the contractor of manipulating the subcontracting process, calling the invitations for minority participation "window dressing,'' and claiming that the contractor had no intention of hiring them.
The highway administration's civil rights office will investigate the matter to determine whether Caltrans and Kiewit made a good faith effort to involve disadvantaged businesses in the process.
Willie Harris, director of civil rights with the Western Resources Center of the Federal Highway Administration, said that the call for an investigation has nothing to do with the merits of the allegation.
He said the highway administration's civil rights office investigates all complaints that are filed within 180 days and fall under the agency's jurisdiction.
Harris said that an investigator would be assigned to the case to conduct the probe, which will draft a recommendation to the Associate Administrator for Civil Rights to determine if there's probable cause to the allegations.
Harris added there is no time restriction for the investigation and added that there's no way of knowing how long the probe into the east span project will last.
Caltrans representatives locally and in Sacramento did not return calls for comment.