Sharing the wealth
Entrepreneurs get slice of HRBT expansion work
Virginia small businesses are getting a piece of the biggest highway construction pie ever baked by the Virginia Department of Transportation: the $3.9 billion Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion project.
Since April 2019, VDOT has awarded 313 contracts worth a collective $455 million to companies that qualify under the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) and Small, Women-owned, and Minority-owned Business (SWaM) federal and state programs for government contractors.
“Thank God for this program,” says William André Gilliam, president of Metals of Distinction Inc., a Hampton-based welding and metal fabrication company that has so far been awarded $1.6 million in renewed contracts through DBE, a federal program run by the U.S. Department of Transportation. “I wish I could get more work like this, but unfortunately I only seem to get this kind of opportunity when there’s a requirement for DBE.”
The federal Department of Transportation designates DBE-qualified businesses, but certification is fully accepted throughout the state if a business is bidding for a contract in a project receiving federal transportation funds. SWaM certification, which is granted by the state Department of Small Business and Supplier Diversity, is needed for state contracts that don’t include federal funding.
Then-Gov. Ralph Northam directed executive branch agencies in 2019 to allocate more than 42% of discretionary spending to certified SWaM businesses, a policy that has not changed under Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
To qualify for DBE status, a company must meet certain criteria, including posting gross receipts not exceeding an annual average of $26.29 million over the previous three fiscal years. Also, business owners cannot have a personal net worth that exceeds $1.32 million, excluding equity in a primary residence and ownership interest in the company.
Among Virginia’s criteria to be certified as a small business for SWaM purposes, a company must be at least 51% independently owned, have fewer than 250 employees and report average annual gross receipts of $10 million or less for the past three years. To qualify as women- or minority-owned, companies must be majority-controlled by a woman or any person of minority ethnicity. In all three cases, the majority owners need to be U.S. citizens or legal resident aliens.
Typically, a certain percentage of work on large transportation projects such as the HRBT is allocated to DBE- or SWaM-certified vendors.
The expansion of HRBT to four two-lane tunnels, which began construction in October 2020 and is expected to be finished in November 2025, pledged 12% of its contracts to DBE businesses and 20% to SWaM companies, says Brooke Grow, VDOT’s communication manager for the project.
As of early August, that goal had not been met, Grow notes, but the Hampton Roads Connector Partnership, the design-build joint venture running the project, “is tracking to achieve the established contract goals and demonstrates good-faith efforts in doing so.”
Queen Crittendon, VDOT’s civil rights manager for the Hampton Roads district, calls the inclusion of certified businesses “an important part of our culture. We want to ensure the maximum opportunity for small businesses to bid and participate in the procurement and contracting process. With the increase in federal transportation funding for highway and bridge improvement, VDOT will need the support of all businesses, including minority- and women-owned businesses, to meet the demands.”
Although out-of-state companies can apply for certification, Grow says 80% of the DBE/SWaM companies involved with the expansion project are based in Virginia, and 52% hail from Hampton Roads.
One of those is Chesapeake-based Bryant-Ritter Hewitt Electric Corp., a 70-employee company founded in 2005. It has a contract through DBE and qualifies as both majority woman-owned and as a small business, says President Susan Ritter.
Her company has been DBE-certified for more than 10 years, and its contract is worth around $12 million for work performed over four years.
It’s one of the three largest contracts the company has ever won and will involve several tasks, including installing around 50 overhead sign structures along the revamped span.
Ritter says state procurement programs for businesses like hers are “critically important. They’ve allowed our company to grow tremendously in both size and scope.” She adds that it’s “an honor” for her company to be working on the HRBT, which opened in 1957.
Since Bryant-Ritter Hewitt received its certification, Ritter says, DBE contracts have made it possible for the company to expand from mostly local work to larger jobs in the Richmond area and now a major project in Maryland: assisting with the replacement of the Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge, which spans the Potomac River, connecting the Northern Neck to southern Maryland.
Gilliam, too, says that DBE contracts have been invaluable to his business, which was started by his father in 1969. In 1999, Gilliam took over the welding company, which now has 12 employees, including Gilliam and his wife. Before winning contracts for work on the HRBT expansion, Metals of Distinction was awarded contracts associated with the expansion of the Midtown Tunnel that connects Norfolk and Portsmouth, and which was completed in 2017.
Working on big projects isn’t a magic bullet for future success — Gilliam says that “after the Midtown Tunnel, it seemed like no one knew who I was, so I had to get back out and grind at my business” — but he is thankful to be part of the HRBT expansion. His single $25,000 contract has been renewed dozens of times and has generated between $1.4 million and $1.6 million during the past two years.
“I just wish other contractors could see how I operate my business,” he says. “With these contracts, at least I’m able to prove myself worthy.”