Section 26.81 What Are the Requirements for Unified Certification Programs?
As was the case following the 1992 NPRM, a significant majority of the large number of commenters addressing the issue favored implementing the proposed UCP requirement, which the final rule retains largely as proposed. A few commenters suggested that airports be included in UCPs for concession purposes as well as for FAA-assisted contracting, because there are not any significant differences between the certification standards for concessionaires and contractors (the only exception is size standards, which are easy to apply). We agree, and the final rule does not make an exception for concessions (regardless of the CFR part in which the concessions provisions appear). Some commenters wanted either a longer or shorter implementation period than the SNPRM proposed, but we believe the proposal is a good middle ground between the goal of establishing UCPs as soon as possible and the time recipients will need to resolve organizational, operational, and funding issues.
There were a number of comments and questions about details of the UCP provision. One recipient wondered whether a UCP may or must be separate from a recipient and what the legal liability implications of various arrangements might be. As far as the rule is concerned, a UCP can either be situated within a recipient's organization or elsewhere. Recipients can take state law concerning liability into account in determining how best to structure a UCP in their state. Another recipient asked if existing UCPs could be exempted from submitting plans for approval. Rather than being exempted, we believe that it would be appropriate for such UCPs to submit their existing plans. They would have to change them only to the extent needed to conform to the requirements of the rule.
Some commenters asked about the relationship of UCPs to recipients. For example, should a recipient be able to certify a firm that the UCP had not certified (or whose application the UCP had not yet acted on) or refuse to recognize the UCP certification of a firm the recipient did not think should be eligible? In both cases, the answer is no. Allowing this kind of discretion would fatally undermine the ``one-stop shopping'' rationale of UCPs. However, a recipient could, like any other party, initiate a third-party challenge to a UCP certification action, the result of which could be appealed to DOT.
We would emphasize that the form of the UCP is a matter for negotiation among DOT recipients in a state, and this regulation does not prescribe its organization. A number of models are available, including single state agencies, consortia of recipients that hire a contractor or share the workload among themselves, mandatory reciprocity among recipients, etc. It might be conceivable for a UCP to be a ``virtual entity'' that is not resident in any particular location. What matters is that the UCP meet the functional requirements of this rule and actually provide one-stop shopping service to applicants. The final rule adds a provision to clarify that UCPs--even when not part of a recipient's own organization--must comply with all provisions of this rule concerning certification and nondiscrimination. Recipients cannot use a UCP that does not do so. For example, if a UCP fails to comply with part 26 certification standards and procedures, or discriminates against certain applicants, the Secretary reserves the right to direct recipients not to use the UCP, effectively ``decertifying'' the UCP for purposes of DOT-assisted programs. In this case, which we hope will never happen, the Department would work with recipients in the state on interim measures and replacement of the erring UCP.
The SNPRM proposed ``pre-certification.'' That is, the UCP would have to certify a firm before the firm became eligible to participate as a DBE in a contract. The application could not be submitted as a last-minute request in connection with a procurement action, which could lead to hasty and inaccurate certification decisions. Commenters were divided on this issue, with most expressing doubts about the concept. The Department believes that avoiding last-minute (and especially post-bid opening) applications is important to an orderly and accurate certification process, so we are retaining this requirement. However, we are modifying the timing of the requirement, by requiring that certification take place before the bid/offer due date, rather than before the issuance of the solicitation. The certification action must be completed by this date in order for the firm's proposed work on the particular contract to be credited toward DBE goals. It is not enough for the application to have been submitted by the deadline.
The SNPRM proposed that, once UCPs were up and running, a UCP in State A would not have to process an application from a firm whose principal place of business was in State B unless State B had first certified the firm. Most commenters supported this proposal, one noting that it would help eliminate problems of having to make costly out-of- state site visits. It would also potentially reduce confusion caused by multiple, and potentially conflicting, outcomes in certification decisions. One commenter was concerned that this provision would lead to ``free-rider'' problems among recipients. The Department will be alert to this possibility, but we do not see it as precluding going forward with this provision. We have added a provision making explicit that when State B has certified a firm, it would have an obligation to send copies of the information and documents it had on the firm to State A when the firm applied there.
All save one of the comments on mandatory reciprocity opposed the concept. That is, commenters favored UCPs being able to choose whether or not to accept certification decisions made by other UCPs. The Department urges UCPs to band together in multi-state or regional alliances, but we believe that it is best to leave reciprocity discretionary. Mandatory reciprocity, even among UCPs, could lead to forum shopping problems.
UCPs will have a common directory, which will have to be maintained in electronic form (i.e., on the internet). One commenter suggested that this electronic directory be updated daily. We think this comment has merit, and the final rule will require recipients to keep a running update of the electronic directory, making changes as they occur.