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Friday, May 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Sound Transit probed after violation surfaces

By Eric Pryne
Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Federal Transit Administration has begun a broad review of Sound Transit's compliance with government "Buy America" requirements after discovering that foreign steel was used illegally in the construction of a Sound Transit project in Kent.

Sound Transit acknowledges $9,500 worth of Canadian steel tubing was used to build a foot bridge between its Kent commuter-rail station and a parking garage. But agency officials say the violation was an inadvertent error by a subcontractor, and that they weren't aware of the problem until the FTA uncovered it earlier this year.

"There's clearly no willful intent here to subvert Buy America," Sound Transit communications director Ric Ilgenfritz said yesterday.

Geoff Patrick, another agency spokesman, said last night that Sound Transit has recently begun looking into another possible violation: Steel nuts worth less than $1,000 that were used for the bridge may have been made in Thailand.

FTA officials in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment yesterday. But, in a May 19 letter to Sound Transit, FTA deputy chief counsel Gregory McBride said that, based in part on the Kent steel-tubing violation, FTA had decided to conduct a "general review" of Sound Transit's Buy America compliance.

Buy America laws generally require use of U.S.-made materials, including steel, in federally funded projects. Supporters say they are needed to keep some endangered American companies afloat.

In his letter, McBride asked Sound Transit for all relevant documents showing the agency's compliance with Buy America provisions for steel and iron for all construction contracts signed in the past three years.

He also asked for similar documents for all federally funded construction contracts for the Sounder commuter-rail program.

Ilgenfritz said the FTA wants to "make sure this (the Kent violation) is just an isolated incident."

"The FTA takes it (Buy America) very seriously," said Sound Transit board chairman and Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg. "We take it seriously, too."
 
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'Agency in full compliance'

But John Samuelsen, a New York union official whose complaint spurred the FTA to begin looking into Sound Transit's Buy America compliance six months ago, said that "if I had to bet money, I would bet they're going to find more violations."

Samuelsen, an official with Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York City, filed his complaint after he attended a seminar in Wisconsin last November. At that seminar, he said, a Sound Transit administrator spoke of using "creative bookkeeping" to get around Buy America requirements.

In a letter to the FTA last December, Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl said the administrator had denied making such remarks and that the agency's own investigation concluded the comments "may have been taken out of context or misunderstood."

"Sound Transit is confident that the agency is in full compliance with Buy America," Earl wrote.

The FTA then asked for documents concerning steel used in two Sound Transit projects, including the Kent foot bridge, and discovered the illegal Canadian steel.

Violation unintentional

Earl acknowledged the violation in an April 26 letter to the FTA, asserting that neither Sound Transit, the project contractor nor the subcontractor who supplied the steel were aware of the Canadian steel at the time of construction.

An employee at a California warehouse who wasn't aware of Buy America requirements shipped 21 pieces of Canadian steel tube along with American-made steel tube in filling the subcontractor's order, she wrote.

Sound Transit lawyer Jane North said yesterday the violation amounted to a shipping clerk pulling tubes out of the wrong bin.

In her April 26 letter, Earl asked the FTA for a retroactive waiver, contending that replacing the Canadian steel would require taking apart the bridge and would cost $250,000. She said the illegal steel amounted to a tiny fraction of the $581,000 in steel used for the bridge, which opened in 2002.

The bridge's contractor, PCL Construction Services of Bellevue, certified when the contract was awarded that it would comply with Buy America. Ilgenfritz and North said federal law requires only that Sound Transit obtain such certification — it doesn't require the agency to monitor compliance.

"If, downstream, somebody violates a Buy America provision, that's an issue between the vendors," he said.

The FTA can bar contractors from bidding on federally funded projects if it concludes they intentionally violated Buy America requirements. It also can require an agency such as Sound Transit to repay any federal money spent on the project.

Ilgenfritz said PCL has offered to refund Sound Transit the $9,500 for the Canadian steel if the agency doesn't get a waiver from the FTA.

The agency has obtained waivers to use foreign steel for rails in its light-rail line in Tacoma and for portions of its light-rail track in Seattle.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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