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California DOT solves problems to employ Conservation Corps

Working through the issues and opportunities to enable use of youth corps in Transportation Enhancement projects.

By John Haynes, TE Program Coordinator, CALTRANS

Youth corps work on California’s TE projects includes landscaping, noxious weed removal, restoration, and native plant revegetation.

California has a number of Transportation Enhancements projects in which the California Conservation Corps (CCC) and other conservation groups are involved. The California Conservation Corps is a workforce development program that offers young men and women the chance to serve their state and become employable citizens by providing life skills training and experience in environmental conservation, fire protection and emergency response. Like the legendary Civilian Conservation Corps created during the Depression, today’s CCC teaches young men and women the job skills and the direction they need to be productive and successful for life.

In addition to the CCCs, the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) TE program is also working with the local non-profit Marin Conservation Corps, as well as a quasi-state department that is affiliated with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). NRCS’s natural resources conservation programs help reduce soil erosion, enhance water supplies, improve water quality, increase wildlife habitat, and reduce damages caused by floods and other natural disasters. Other youth corps work in California’s TE projects entails landscaping, noxious weed removal, restoration and native plant revegetation. In addition, it has been proposed that the CCCs install sidewalks with tree cutouts. While this project has not yet come to fruition, it could provide valuable training to young men and women and may lead to direct employment with highway contractors.

photo: Youth crew removing stray rocks from a California State Park
Youth crew at work in Colorado

Several issues arise when youth corps are involved in Transportation Enhancements projects, which should be addressed by the Department of Transportation for utmost efficiency and greatest benefit to all parties involved. First, it must be decided what entity and individual should direct the field work. Secondly, it is important to come up with an agreement regarding payment for the youth corps’ work. Sometimes issues arise when the cost of a corps’ work is not the lowest bid available. Additionally, some states forbid entering into a contract with a non-profit organization. This is problematic since many youth corps are themselves nonprofit organizations. Fortunately, there are ways to make use of a youth corps successfully in TE, despite these potential roadblocks.

Directing the Work

There are significant differences in how work is directed in TE projects when a youth corps is involved. Generally, the corps work is directed by the Department of Transportation. The directing person could be a resident engineer. Often, a landscape architect will draw up schematic plans and direct the work in the field. On other projects, a restoration specialist directs the work.

It is important to keep in mind that management of youth corps can be challenging. It is important to make sure the corps members feel welcome and a part of the team. This will help encourage on time arrival and hard work.

Compensating the Corps

In California, one of two different agreements are commonly used to pay for the youth corps work: the Cooperative Agreement or the Interagency Agreement. There are several benefits to using the Cooperative Agreement. The Cooperative Agreement can be done wholly within CALTRANS, which allows the agreement to be very specific regarding work to be done and how the organizations will be paid. The Interagency Agreement is more complicated in that it must be followed by a Service Contract. Both the Interagency Agreement and Service Contract must be approved by other state agencies, which adds complexity and time to the project.

Costs and Savings

To enter into any agreement other than a low bid contract, a Public Interest Finding must be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for prior approval. This is quite simple for conservation corps groups; simply use the language directly from FHWA’s Guidance on Transportation Enhancements that encourages the use of these groups. Cost savings of youth corps groups’ involvement does not have to be demonstrated since the legislation encourages their use. For all other groups, lower costs or other public benefits must be demonstrated for FHWA approval. If any of these groups are going to purchase materials, buy or rent equipment, or bring in a sub contractor, they must follow federal contracting rules.

A great benefit of using youth corps is the savings that result from avoiding formal plans, specifications, and estimates. Since the work is being directed in the field, simple schematic plans are often adequate to complete the environmental documentation, cost estimates, and direction of the work. The cost of drafting plans and specification and of the Office Engineer and contract award are eliminated

Contracting with Non-Profits

One interesting aspect in California is that CALTRANS is prohibited from entering into a contract with a non-profit group. This does not mean that non-profit youth corps are barred from TE, however. California’s current project with the non-profit Marin Conservation Corps is on a right-ofway adjacent to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The National Park Service (NPS) is a partner in the project, and is providing a soft match by supplying native plants and an Americorps worker to assist with the establishment of the vegetation. Because CALTRANS could not hire the Marin Conservation Corps directly, they entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with NPS, who will hire the MCC to do the work on the right-of-way.

The use of youth corps in Transportation Enhancement projects provides numerous benefits that are immediate and tangible. In addition, such work provides an investment into the future of the community and the young men and women given the opportunity to work. State Departments of Transportation can help create a successful partnership with youth corps that will benefit everyone involved.

For more information on youth and conservation corps, see:

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