Wall St. Journal: Black Labor Concerns Delay Oakland Airport Expansion by Paul T. Rosynsky

Concerns over minority hiring stalled a Port commission vote Tuesday on the first phase of an Oakland airport expansion project.

More than 100 African-American business owners, pastors and trade workers crowding the commission meeting, along with political maneuvering behind the scenes, forced a delay on the decision for at least two weeks.

The commission had been expected to approve a $110 million contract with Turner Construction to build the first phase of the Oakland International Airport terminal expansion project.

It was the busiest commission meeting in several months.

The six port commissioners listened for about a hour as a dozen African Americans pleaded with them to offer more minority jobs on the airport.

And then, in unrelated actions, the commission gave unanimous approvals to two separate programs that will offer incentives to truckers to reduce diesel emissions and allow the federal government to place radiation detection monitors at all port maritime terminals.

But it was the protest of the airport contract that sparked the longest and loudest debate. The port had selected Turner as the "prime" contractor last year and spent the last few months negotiating a price.

But a vote on the contract was delayed at the request of at least two City Council members, and after the port received numerous calls from the community protesting the amount of work going to minorities, sources said.

Despite the delay, dozens of African-American leaders continued to criticize the port for not doing enough to hire minorities. The meeting at times became a forum on history of slavery, Oakland's high unemployment rate and number of homicides.

"This project is linked to the livelihood of the entire city," said Greg Hodge, a member of the Oakland school board and the Oakland Black Caucus, an influential group of African-American businessmen. "People in our city are hurting ... and this is a critical moment. The port has an obligation."

But it is an obligation the port said it has and will continue to meet.

Since it revealed plans to expand the airport, the port has developed numerous programs to ensure Turner Construction would hire locally-owned firms and use minority workers on the job.

In fact, the contract with Turner requires the company to dole out 30 percent of the project to locally owned firms. It is a requirement Turner has said it will exceed. If it doesn't the firm will be fined by the port.

"If they don't achieve the local participation goals that we have set they lose a lot of money," said Bernida Reagan, director of the port's social responsibility division. "And if the numbers aren't what we want, Turner won't get the next contract."

But critics said Tuesday that they have not seen proof that Turner will meet the goals and argued that since the firm has been in negotiations with the port it has only contacted a "handful" of African-American leaders.

Port officials argued that is exactly what they are doing.

The confusion, they said, might lay in the fact that Turner has only begun to seek bids on the first phase of a multi-phase project.

And they insisted, future phases will result in more minority contracting opportunities. If not, the port has the option of selecting another contractor for future airport construction jobs.

"This is Phase 1, actually, it's part one of Phase 1," Reagan said. "We've always assumed the majority of work for the minority and small firms would come in later phases."

Nevertheless, the port said it will work in the next two weeks to answer concerns raised at the meeting and talk with Turner to find ways to better contact the community. In fact, community outreach helped the port in another unrelated issue that was approved at the meeting.

With the help of local truckers and members of the West Oakland neighborhood, the port developed a new program that will help truckers clean up diesel emissions spouting from their rigs.

Under the program, sparked by a lawsuit filed by West Oakland residents almost a decade ago, the port will give grants to truckers to buy newer, cleaner-burning rigs or outfit their current trucks with diesel oxidation catalysts.

The port will spend almost $2 million on the program, which will be split between grants for new trucks and the installation of catalysts in existing rigs.

Depending on the age of a truck and the area of the port it services, the port will decide if it should be replaced outright or receive a catalyst. Owners of trucks the port determines should be replaced will get a$7,500 grant for a newer truck. The other trucks will get new catalysts free of charge.

In addition to the truck program, the commission gave approval to several contracts that will allow the U.S. Customs Bureau to place radiation portal monitors at the exit of every maritime terminal.

By doing so, the port becomes the first in the nation to receive the equipment that the federal government hopes to eventually have at every port in the nation.

According to port documents, the portals will be installed by September at a cost of about $1.5 million.

While the port must spend its own money to install the new portals, the federal government will reimburse all costs.

Note: This aricle first appeared in The Oakland Tribune under the title, "Labor concerns delay airport vote"

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Wednesday, February 4, 2004