High-Speed Rail

Contractors, small businesses meet about high-speed rail

About 500 small-business representatives from throughout the San Joaquin Valley and California met with potential prime contractors Tuesday in Fresno in hopes of finding work building California's high-speed train system.

An industry forum at the Save Mart Center outlined the latest plans for construction between Fresno and Bakersfield. It also served as a networking session for small businesses seeking work as project subcontractors.

"You all have a lot of experience, and we want to take advantage of that," Hans Van Winkle, construction manager for the statewide high-speed train project, told the audience.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has set a goal for its prime contractors to promote subcontracting with small businesses and businesses owned by women, ethnic minorities or disabled veterans. The agency wants 30% of its work to go to those small businesses.

Five teams of contractors are putting their bids together for the first section of construction from Madera to the south end of Fresno -- a contract that is expected to be worth $1.5 billion to $2 billion.

Those bids are expected to be submitted in October, said Jeffrey Morales, the authority's CEO.

Tuesday's forum was to highlight work on three additional construction segments from Fresno to north of Bakersfield. About a dozen prospective prime contractors from the U.S., Europe and South Korea, including some that are expected to bid on the first segment, were on hand to meet with small-business owners.

The statewide system is planned to span 520 miles and connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with high-speed trains within 10-15 years. The price tag is estimated at $68.4 billion.

Ed Johnson of Mariposa was on hand to drum up business for his group, Edward J. Johnson Affiliates, "to prevent things from running into delays" by providing dispute-resolution services to prime contractors as they negotiate with landowners and other contractors.

"We're hoping we can give someone the advantage of helping them meet their 30% small-business goal," he said.

Jack Ybarra and his company, Transmetrics Engineering and Construction Management, brought a team from his Campbell headquarters to meet with prime contractors.

"We need work, and this is the kind of work we do," he said. "This is the biggest public works project, and it will allow me to do what I do best, and that's hire people."

Engineers and contractors aren't the only ones hoping to find work on the Valley stages of construction.

Craig Chenot, an estimator with Clovis-based D/C Recycling and Trucking, said that being selected to move heavy equipment, haul away demolition materials and provide other transport needs could allow his company to hire 100 or more truck drivers full time.

But, he added, it falls to the small-business owners to make their best pitch to compete for business and keep the attention of the prime contractors. "You've got to stay on the ball, or you're going to miss the train," Chenot said.

Not officially present was China's second-largest railroad builder, the state-owned China Railway Construction Co., or CRCC. But Jeffrey Chang of Beijing-based Prometheus Partners said CRCC and other Chinese firms are interested in competing for work on the statewide rail project.

CRCC was part of a consortium tasked by China's Ministry of Railways to explore the California high-speed rail market in early 2011.

But a high-profile crash on China's high-speed train system last summer, in which 40 people died and 191 others were hurt, dampened China's enthusiasm for exporting its technology.

Even before the crash, Chang added, the nation's efforts were hindered by a political corruption scandal that resulted in the arrest of the rail minister and the ouster of one of his chief deputies.

Chang said he didn't know if CRCC or other Chinese companies would enter the bidding for the Valley sections of high-speed rail construction.

He added, however, that China remains intent on competing for business for other stages of construction in the state.