Politics

Federal pilot program may result in more jobs for LA residents on Metro projects

Metro staged a career resource fair for construction work in a tent outside the MTA building. Under a new pilot project, L.A. County residents might get priority in hiring
Metro staged a career resource fair for construction work in a tent outside the MTA building. Under a new pilot project, L.A. County residents might get priority in hiring
Brian Watt/KPCC

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The federal government has proposed temporarily lifting a longtime ban on cities and states giving their own residents first priority for jobs building federally-funded transportation projects, just as Los Angeles embarks on a light rail building boom.

"You get it," L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx during a conference call with reporters to announce the one-year pilot project. "You understand at the local level what communities go through when they watch great investments come to their community but struggle to see familiar faces on the worksite."

Foxx, who is the former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., said the pilot program would allow local governments to pass on the benefits of federal transportation construction spending to more of their constituents because those paychecks would be spent in the local economy.

It will give hiring preference to low-income workers, veterans and residents living in jurisdictions receiving federal highway and transit grants. Many cities and agencies already have local hiring preferences for projects funded by local and state funds, but couldn't use those rules if a single federal dollar were used, Foxx said.

Metro currently has $36 billion worth of construction projects planned or underway. Three major federally-funded projects most likely to be affected are the Purple Line subway extension across West Los Angeles, the Crenshaw/LAX light rail line and the Regional Connecter under construction downtown.

Garcetti, who also is chairman of the board overseeing the Metropolitan Transportation Agency of Los Angeles, said he will consider anyone living in Los Angeles County "local" - not just those living in the city or near the lines being built.

It's not clear how many new jobs for city or county residents the change might create. Many working on the projects likely live in the county already.

At Metro, contractors on federally funded projects will face new hiring mandates. They will be required to give 40 percent of their work hours to residents of low-income zip codes within Los Angeles County.  Metro's current rules require contractors to give 40 percent of their work hours to residents of low-income zip codes nationally.  Contractors must also meet goals for hiring local disadvantaged workers, and local apprentices.

The local preferences will be written into contracts put out to bid within the next year, said Stephanie Wiggins, who oversees vendor contracts for Metro.

Another major building project already has local hiring preference, which was allowed because it doesn't use federal funds. The extension of the light rail Expo Line from Culver City to Santa Monica is costing $1.5 billion, raised through a local half-cent sales tax under Measure R, which passed in 2008.

That project set a goal that 30 percent of its 200 jobs go to residents of Los Angeles County.

Officials said it surpassed the goal, using local workers for more than 49 percent of work hours. About one-quarter of all work hours were completed by "disadvantaged" workers, according to Gabriela Collins, spokeswoman for the Expo Construction Authority. Disadvantaged workers may be homeless, single parents with custody,  on welfare, lack a high school diploma, have a criminal record, chronically unemployed, former foster care residents, veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan war or in an apprentice program.

The federal ban on local preferences in hiring had long been justified by the idea that all taxpayers pay into the federal transportation budget, so all residents should be able to compete for the jobs federal dollars create.

"They haven't been allowed to use them for federally funded projects out of concern that the programs restrict competition," Foxx said during the conference call, which also included the mayors of Atlanta and Birmingham. "The feedback from our grantees is, 'Let us see it, let us use it.'"

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had sought a similar change in federal policy in 2011, lobbying Foxx's predecessor, Ray LaHood.

Garcetti said he had sought the change with Foxx, who took office in 2013. Garcetti also credited Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) for helping craft the federal pilot program.