Saying he is concerned “it just doesn’t look right,” state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who chairs a key committee, said late Thursday he hopes the South Florida Regional Transit Authority does not award a controversial operations contract Friday that could be worth $511 million over ten years.
Brandes said he’s asking the staff of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development to look into the transit authority’s procurement process that led to this point, with five of six proposals being tossed on technical reasons and the authority then pushing a more expensive deal with the remaining bidder, Herzog Services.
Concerns about the deal were first reported earlier Thursday on FloridaPolitics.com, and on POLITICO Florida. Brandes said he first learned of the deal and concerns surrounding it late Wednesday.
The transit authority said earlier Thursday it would not comment, due to rules requiring silence on the matter until the SFRTA Board of Trustees gets the presentation Friday.
Brandes said he hopes the transit authority board will postpone a decision for a few weeks. In the meantime, he’ll be gearing up his committee to look into it.
That’s no small matter for Tri-Rail. He said the SFRTA gets about $50 million a year in state subsidy. And that goes through his committee. That’s enough money essentially to cover the entire contract.
The Republican senator from St. Petersburg stressed that he’s not accusing anyone of of wrong-doing, and that he has no evidence of wrong-doing.
But he said that anytime a contract this big comes up there should be scrutiny, especially when the process essentially turned the competition into a one-bid deal, raising strong objections from the companies whose proposals were rejected in secret, for technical reasons, which they dispute.
“It just doesn’t look right,” Brandes said. “Here you have a $500 million, ten-year contract where you disqualify five of the six bidders, it doesn’t look right. So if it doesn’t look right, we should take the opportunity to make sure it follows a correct process and the taxpayers are getting the best deal they can get for $500 million for the operation of that facility.”
He said he wants to have conversations with the transit authority’s leadership to understand their process, and perhaps would like to see an inspector general investigation. or auditor’s review. He said there might need to be hearings at the state level. And then he wants to talk about long-term, more systemic changes, including whether big independent authorities like SFRTA ought to be brought into the state system so that contract disputes could be appealed to state administrative court.
Tri-Rail is the oldest and largest state-funded rail in the state, operating up to 50 trains a day on a 72-mile track through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
The transit authority is seeking a company to take over four different long-term contracts merged into one, to operate the system, maintain the trains and equipment, maintain the stations, and provide dispatching. It’s a seven-year deal with three one-year extension options. Herzog’s bid sought $511 million for the full ten years. Other bidders were lower, as low as $396 million.
Some rejected bidders, including Tri-Rail’s current operator, Maryland’s Transdev Services, are fuming and challenging. This month, Transdev went to court to block the award; initially getting a temporary restraining order.
Two other disqualified bidders, Bombardier Mass Transit and First Transit, joined in. But after a hearing last Friday, Circuit Judge Barbara McCarthy of Broward County lifted her order Monday.
The issues the challengers have raised questions on how much latitude the agency’s staff has in deciding whether a proposal meets requirements, how staff members can make judgment calls and assumptions that go beyond stated prices, and how they do so without contacting the bidders for clarification.