WHILE IT’S understandable that the Midlands transit authority board wants to choose the right firm under the right contract to operate the public bus system, it shouldn’t have taken nearly two years to get to this point.
The board is in the early stages of reviewing bids from transportation firms and could make a decision soon about who the next bus operator will be. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the board will make a choice before year’s end, as has been suggested.
Frankly, at this point, if it takes another month to choose a firm and negotiate a contract favorable to this community, it would be worth it. If you think citizens are upset about the tardiness of this process, imagine how they would respond if, after the troubling delay, the board strikes a bad deal.
The public was expecting a new operator to be in place a year ago. But Veolia Transportation’s contract has been extended as the board has struggled with the bid process. Veolia has operated the buses since they were transferred into public hands in 2002; it could be among the frontrunners for the new contract.
The board seemed close to choosing a new operator near the first of this year as it negotiated with Veolia, the top bidder in an earlier competitive process conducted by the transit authority, known as The COMET. But in March the transit board broke off negotiations with Veolia in an apparent attempt to get a better deal from the No. 2 bidder, Keolis. But despite coming up with what some termed a reasonable deal with Keolis, the board failed to approve the contract and instead decided to go through the process a second time.
Board Chairman Brian DeQuincey Newman told me a couple months ago that while the panel is concerned about the delay, the extra time spent hasn’t been a waste. He said the board learned a lot through the aborted bidding process that should help ensure the Midlands gets what it wants in service and an operator. A much-improved request for proposals resulted from the experience, he said.
Mr. Newman said board members represent constituencies across the county and are working to ensure that when a new operator is chosen the various issues that affect those they represent have been sufficiently addressed. He said this will be the largest procurement effort the system has undertaken, one that will affect this community at least for the next 10 years. “We’re going to take our time and make sure we make the right decisions,” he said.
The bus service has never been bid out since the public took over its operations back in 2002, meaning taxpayers have no idea whether they are getting as good a deal as possible financially or in terms of quality.
While board members haven’t talked in any detail publicly about why they didn’t pull the trigger on a deal the first time around, it’s widely believed that it involves the attempt to ensure that minority and locally owned businesses get a piece of the pie — an admirable, reasonable and proper goal. It’s legitimate to expect officials to make a good-faith effort to ensure that all local businesses have an equal opportunity to participate in the government’s procurement process. And with Richland voters agreeing to spend $1 billion on transit, road projects and other improvements over the next 22 years, the expectation that as much of that money as possible is kept locally is heightened. A third of the total will be devoted to the bus system.
That said, the idea isn’t to choose local or minority companies for the sake of it. They, like all companies, must be able to do whatever job they’re contracted to do adequately and at a reasonably good price to taxpayers. Not only that, this shouldn’t be a situation where one or two hand-picked local or black- or female-owned companies corner the market. Local companies should have a shot at all manner of jobs — including para-transit, bus cleaning, tire sales, security, landscaping and technology. A system should be implemented to track to what degree minority and local businesses get work.
I can only assume that the first attempt at selecting an operator failed because some board members weren’t able to get a satisfactory answer from prospective operators about how they would facilitate local and minority participation. While such processes — and procurement ordinances — must be race- and gender-neutral, there are ways to encourage large vendors to include smaller, local firms. As long as taxpayers don’t suffer, it only makes sense to keep money in this community so that it boosts the local economy and keeps local citizens employed.
One other important matter that must be clearly spelled out in the next agreement is a requirement that the operator regularly produce detailed financial reports that explain exactly what the public money it receives is spent on. That’s long been a sticking point with Veolia, which was able to avoid providing details on how public money is spent by claiming that its financial reports are a key element of its business model and therefore proprietary and not subject to disclosure. But the fact that a private company is providing bus service doesn’t trump the fact that it is being funded by public money.
Basic principles of public accountability require that a mechanism be in place that helps ensure tax dollars will be used in the most efficient and productive manner. It would be derelict for the transit board to enter into a contract that doesn’t require the disclosure of information needed to allow citizens to determine whether they are getting a good return.
First things first: The transit board must make a decision. A good one.
Reach Mr. Bolton
at (803) 771-8631 or email@example.com.