Bay Area transit orders top engineering firm to stop work

Officials at the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency have issued a stop work order to a key engineering firm, San Francisco-based PGH Wong, while it conducts a conflict of interest review that involves a personnel matter, The Times has learned.

Last Friday, the transit agency directed the firm “to place all work on hold as BART and PGH Wong review a potential conflict of interest,” agency spokeswoman Alicia Trost said. “So far, we have found no evidence of bad faith.”

California engineering industry sources familiar with the stop work order called it a highly unusual move in one of the nation’s largest mass transit systems.

“I have never seen anything like it,” said a top executive at one engineering firm who was not authorized to talk to the media and requested anonymity. The official said such a strong action indicates a potentially serious issue and that a BART employee is at the center of the review. Another industry executive, who disclosed the matter to The Times, said a letter was sent to BART officials raising the matter.

Trost, BART’s chief communications officer, declined to provide details of the review. “We are not going to comment on personnel matters,” she said. “No employees have been suspended.”

Wong has long provided engineering and consulting services to the BART system, including construction management services, architectural services, engineering for the district’s capital improvement program and help in rebuilding projects across the region.

Like many consultants on public projects, the firm is deeply embedded into BART’s organization. A week after the order to stop work was issued, it is still not clear how long the review will take.

“It is still unclear the level of impacts this will cause to projects and BART staff is currently working to develop strategies to minimize impacts,” Trost said.

She said the agency “has had a long and successful partnership with PGH Wong Engineering in delivering rail transit projects.”

PGH Wong is highly regarded in the world of transit engineering and construction, the industry executives said. The privately-owned firm was founded by Peter Wong in 1985 and he now runs it with his two sons.

The firm issued a statement Friday noting its longstanding relationship with the transit agency but offered no details on the stop-work order. “We look forward to resolving this matter expeditiously with BART and getting on with the important work of supporting BART,” the statement said.

BART has relied on PGH Wong for decades. The transit system was designed by San Francisco-based Bechel with help from the former Parsons Brinckerhoff, now WSP. Wong was an electrical engineer for Bechtel before founding his own firm. Since then, the firm has won numerous awards for its projects and has become a key player in the BART system.

The firm does business across the nation, but mainly in the West. It is acting as a construction manager for a troubled 31-mile segment of the California bullet train system in Fresno. It is a key player in airport projects, a light rail system under construction in Honolulu and is principle engineer for electrifying the Bay Area’s Caltrain commuter rail system.

It is also a joint venture partner in the six-mile BART extension from Berryessa to Santa Clara, a $6.9-billion project of the Valley Transportation Authority. That work is apparently not affected by the stop work order. It also played a major role in the first phase of the project from Freemont to Berryessa, which is now operational.

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