By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- Concerned that a lucrative commuter rail contract will be lost through what they described as an obscure and unusual procurement process, Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail Company officials want to slow down the bid award.

The Massachusetts Transportation Board will be asked Wednesday for approval to enter contract negotiations with Keolis Commuter Services, one of two bidders in the contest to manage passenger trains along more than 660 revenue miles of track featuring 130 stations. MBCR has held the rail contract since 2003 when Amtrak stopped running the service.

"The best-case scenario is that the board does not make a decision on Wednesday," MBCR general counsel Alan Moldawer told the News Service, saying MBCR has not been given adequate opportunity to make its case. He said, "This has not been a professional process."

A posted MassDOT agenda said the contract would include a base amount of $2.68 billion, and would not exceed $4.25 billion. MBCR officials said the process has not been "transparent" and has not followed bidding norms such as open lines of communication.

Transportation Secretary Rich Davey has recused himself from the procurement process because he was previously an MBCR executive.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the 30-month process used Federal Transit Authority best practices, included a peer-review and provisions in the request for proposals have "been followed to the letter."

"The process has been fair, even-handed, and by the book, and the MBTA is committed to making sure that the final stages of the process are conducted in the same manner," Pesaturo said in a statement. He said, "The process was designed to ensure the best value for the public, MBTA customers and the Authority. The evaluation process involved an assessment of operations and management as well as costs and other financial components."

MBCR is a partnership with the international company Veolia Transportation owning 60 percent, and the other remaining shares split between Bombardier and Alternate Concepts.

Ron Hartman, the CEO of Veolia's Rail Division, said in major contracts it is typical for the prospective vendor to engage in long conversations with the bidder to answer questions.

A member of MBCR's five-person board, Hartman said he had planned to make a presentation with acting General Manager Marie Breen as part of a 45-minute meeting in September with state transportation officials, including Chief Financial Officer Jonathan Davis and many lawyers.

After some discussion on the state's side, the state prohibited Hartman and Breen from presenting, requiring the group - which included the heads of operations, maintenance and safety - to reorganize, make their pitch "with the timer running" in what wound up as the last meeting with state transportation officials, Hartman said.

"They know more about the upcoming game plan of the Patriots this coming weekend than any of the public or the board knows about this procurement," said Moldawer.

On Saturday, MBCR officials read a Boston Globe story that Keolis is the preferred choice of MassDOT staff and tried in vain to talk to someone at the state about the report. After several attempts, the state referred MBCR to the agenda of Wednesday's meeting.

"It was worse than galling. It was disrespectful," said Hartman, who said company officials didn't have answers for questions from employees. He said, "Typically at some point in advance we'll get a call."

Hartman and Moldawer said the pricing and contingencies that make up the cost of their bid are too complicated to compare against the spare details of the Keolis bid in the MassDOT board agenda. Hartman said the bid included "tens of millions of dollars of ways to save money."

MBCR officials said their bid would have accounted for MBCR taking on some of capital expenditures, and criticized the Keolis bid as likely focused on only the bottom line. 

"They go for low bids," said MBCR spokesman Scott Farmelant, who said that focus has cost the MBTA with cost overruns on Blue Line cars, subpar rail ties and overdue commuter rail cars being manufactured by Hyundai Rotem.

Moldawer said Keolis has "not even met with labor representatives" and questioned the company's ability to launch service by July. He said if the contract does go to Keolis and the company needed time to take over operations, MBCR would be accommodating.

Moldawer and Hartman also raised legal questions about Keolis's ability to make financial commitments because, they said, the French national railway SNCF owns 70 percent of the company, and French law might create an entanglement for the national railroad doing business overseas.

"The questions have been raised in Paris by our legal advisers there," Hartman said.

Hartman said the more than 1,000 pages of submissions and subsequent questionnaires were not enough to provide state officials with a full understanding of the bid, and said sheaves of those papers are filled with technical reports.

"If they had as little contact with Keolis as they had with us, this is even scarier," said Hartman.

Pesaturo said the MBTA answered more than 1,000 questions from the prospective vendors.

"The evaluation process has been open, transparent and fair for all parties involved," Pesaturo said.