Union: Only 1 firm bid on T bus repair work

Lack of interest may complicate privatization efforts

THE MBTA’S BID TO PRIVATIZE as many as three of its nine bus maintenance garages may be in trouble, as the union representing existing workers said only one firm had submitted a bid to do the work.

Luis Ramirez, the T’s general manager, refused to comment on how many companies had submitted bids and was circumspect about the agency’s plans for privatizing bus maintenance other than to say the procurement process was continuing. Union officials insisted their information about the lone bidder was accurate.

The bus privatization procurement has become a political football. State and federal lawmakers have sided with the union in opposition to privatization, while MBTA officials have pushed to privatize some bus maintenance work to cut costs. The union and the T have been trying to find common ground, a way to introduce privatization that would be acceptable to the union. Sources said a number of approaches have been explored, but the lack of interest in the maintenance contract among private companies may complicate the process.

In prepared remarks on Monday to the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, Ramirez said the agency’s procurement process yielded “analytical and other baseline data it had previously lacked. The T will be able to use this information to produce a more cost effective and efficient bus maintenance operation that will benefit both the ridership and the taxpayers of the Commonwealth.”

Ramirez said the T continues to negotiate with its union, to drive productivity through internal management initiatives, and to explore privatization. He concluded by saying: “We look forward to continuing to work with our partners in labor and other key stakeholders to ensure the best outcome for the ridership.”

Ramirez’s comments came after Michael Vartabedian, business agent for Local 264, which represents workers at the MBTA bus garages, said he had learned that only one company submitted a bid to perform bus maintenance for the T. The T had expected three companies to submit bids. Vartabedian said the lone bidder was First Transit of Cincinnatti, Ohio. He read off numerous news reports about First Transit’s difficulties with contracts around the country.

“You can’t have a legitimate bidding process with only one controversial, unreliable company bidding,” he said in a prepared statement.

But there is nothing to prevent the T from signing a contract with First Transit. Under the procurement process, bidders were asked to submit bids on the three garages in Jamaica Plain, Lynn, and Quincy. Bidders were also asked to submit bids to operate the individual garages, so the T could privatize just one, two, or all three facilities. The MBTA could also start the bidding process over again from scratch in an attempt to attract more bidders.

At Monday’s meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, Vartabedian said the T’s other privatization efforts have not gone well. He singled out efforts to privatize the agency’s warehouse operations by hiring Mancon LLC of Virginia. Vartabedian said the warehouse is not open 24 hours a day as T officials promised. He also noted two employees were arrested recently for stealing parts, others have been caught sleeping on the job, and some have been reprimanded for using drugs at work.

“This is just another example of privatization failure,” he said.

At the request of Brian Lang, a member of the control board who was not present at Monday’s meeting, Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the board, asked top T officials to prepare an update on the Mancon contract.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Having just one bidder for the bus maintenance work could make final pricing negotiations difficult, since First Transit knows it is the only firm in the running. Having multiple bidders is the preferred approach. The control board approved two projects on Monday – a $56.9 million contract for the replacement of a bridge in Gloucester and a $21.2 million contract to build a test track for new Red Line cars in South Boston. In both cases, five bids were submitted and the T selected the lowest bidder. Three companies have also submitted bids to design and construct the Green Line extension into Somerville and Medford.

Greg Sullivan of the Pioneer Institute, a leading advocate of privatization, said outsourcing the bus maintenance work is a way to cut costs and improve service. He urged the control board to stay the course and privatize the garage work.

“If you don’t do it now, it’s probably never going to happen,” he said.