WE WERE only mildly concerned when the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority board broke off negotiations with the top company seeking the contract to operate the bus system in an apparent attempt to get a better deal from the No. 2 bidder.
After all, bus operations never had been bid out in the dozen years they had been in public hands, and it’s critical to get the best deal possible as the authority gears up to spend millions of dollars more to create the kind and quality of system this community needs and deserves.
But the recent decision to abandon the process and take new bids is troubling. Not only does starting over mean that time put into this effort has been wasted, but it further delays a decision that should have been made months ago. More importantly, it means the board blew $150,000 to $200,000 in public money on a process that led nowhere and that it must spend even more now.
Most frustrating is the fact that the board has given the public no explanation for restarting the process despite some officials’ assertion that an accord had been reached with the No. 2 bidder. Is this board — half of whose members were ready to award a contract — capable of making this key decision? Is the presence of elected officials on the panel injecting too much politics into the process? The public is left to try to separate truth from rumors and innuendo because of the board’s silence.
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The transit authority is duty-bound to explain itself to the public. This isn’t about divulging secrets that can come up during contract negotiations; it’s about a public body detailing why it couldn’t or wouldn’t do the job it is charged with doing.
At one point, officials had suggested a key holdup was ensuring that the operator is committed to hiring local and minority-owned subcontractors. But board Chairman Brian DeQuincey Newman, a member of Columbia City Council, said that isn’t the reason negotiations were ended.
Three companies have been in contention for the contract — current operator Veolia Transportation, First Transit and Keolis. The bus board initially had been negotiating with one operator, which it hasn’t identified, but switched gears in March to begin talks with Keolis, the No. 2-ranked firm.
If the new process is successful — and at this point, who knows? — it could be the end of the year before a new operator is chosen. But here’s the kicker: Because only a few companies provide this service, odds are that the transit board will end up in the same position it is in now — having to choose from the same three companies that participated in the first bid process. What gives?
Frankly, Richland County citizens should be alarmed; this is the second major contract involving proceeds from the transportation penny voters approved in 2012 that has been bungled. Richland County Council botched the selection process for an engineering firm that would oversee hundreds of millions of dollars in road and other construction and is starting over. Like the bus board, County Council has done a poor job of explaining what happened.
Citizens deserve better. Much better.