California firm challenges CARTA bid pick

metro -- A Carta bus turns on to King Street traveling north Friday March 19, 2004. (GRACE BEAHM/STAFF) Published Caption 6/4/05: CARTA drivers are deciding whether to go on strike for higher salaries. Published Date 1/6/2009: CARTA had a healthy increase in ridership in 2008, demonstrating the bus system is growing and improving.

GRACE BEAHM

A California-based firm has appealed the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority selection of a contractor to provide drivers and mechanics for the local bus system.

The CARTA board recently picked Veolia Transportation as the best candidate for a new contract beginning July1. The firm, headquartered in Illinois, has the current CARTA contract for drivers and maintenance workers.

MV Transportation of Fairfield, Calif., argues in a May 12 letter to CARTA Executive Director Howard Chapman that the selection process was unfair and influenced by CARTA being $3 million in debt to Veolia.

MV Transportation bid to provide the service at less cost, said Daniel D. Lee, director of MV Transportation contracts administration.

"The actual difference in total contract price between MV and Veolia was about $3 million," Lee said in an e-mail.

A CARTA board committee ranked competing firms according to a point system that included a number of factors but not cost. When the committee evaluations were finished, CARTA staff used a formula to assign points to each applicant based on cost. The final scores were given to the CARTA board with the recommendation that the highest scorer, Veolia, be selected for negotiations, Chapman explained in a letter to Lee.

"Cost was an important factor, but certainly not the exclusive factor," Chapman said.

CARTA Board Chairman Elliott Summey said an appeals committee has been appointed to hear the case. It is comprised of area government procurement directors, he said.

Summey said CARTA is $3 million in debt to Veolia because of the typical lag time for receiving federal grants, which are critical to CARTA. "Any federal contractor knows that," he said.

During CARTA board executive sessions about picking a new contractor, there was no discussion of the fact that CARTA is $3 million in arrears to Veolia, he said.

"I think it's pretty baseless," he said of the complaint.

Summey said three finalists were evaluated in five or six categories other than cost using a point system, and Veolia scored the highest. "That way, it's not just a low-bid type deal," he said.

MV Transportation is prepared to appeal to state court if the CARTA-appointed appeals board rejects its arguments, the company states in a letter to Chapman.

In a letter to Lee, Chapman said, "The mere fact that CARTA owes money to Veolia under its current contract does not create an organizational conflict of interest. If anything, the award of the contract to Veolia may simply succeed in making CARTA more in debt to Veolia, not give it an unfair competitive advantage."

In the U.S. and Canada, Veolia Transportation has 200 contracts with 18,000 employees for public transit including bus, rail, taxi and shuttle services. It operates bus systems in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, San Diego, Atlanta, Baltimore and suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Toronto.

MV Transportation is the largest provider of paratransit services and the largest privately owned transportation contracting firm in the Unitd States. It operates more than 190 paratransit, fixed-route, shuttle and Medicaid contracts in 26 states, the District of Columbia and British Columbia.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711