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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Transit Bids Stir Transparency Fears

Abele could select a for-profit bus operator without board input

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The bidding process on a three-year contract to operate the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) is less transparent than it has been in the past, said Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan, the vice chair of the Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee.

“I think it’s just quite Orwellian,” Weishan said. “It seems that no matter what level of government, the more they talk about transparency the less transparency there is.”

Milwaukee County is currently seeking bids from transit operators to manage MCTS and paratransit services, with the three-year contract set to begin on Jan. 1, 2014. The deadline for proposals was June 24 and an announcement from the Abele administration is expected soon.

The county is soliciting bids from nonprofit and for-profit transit providers. The French-based international giant Veolia Transportation is rumored to be one of the bidders, but that hasn’t been confirmed. Veolia Transportation runs bus systems in Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans, San Diego and elsewhere.

The nonprofit Milwaukee Transport Services Inc. has operated the system since 1975 and won national awards in 1987 and 1999. It’s likely one of the bidders.

 

Privatization in the Works?

Weishan charged that supervisors have been cut out of the bidding process and the board doesn’t have a voice in the selection of the operator.

The official request for proposals (RFPs) was issued April 29, before the board of supervisors-gutting Act 14 was made law. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele worked with Republican legislators to pass Act 14, which radically diminishes the board’s oversight of county operations while boosting the executive’s power. Among the many changes in county government is the board’s ability to oversee contracts.

Although the transit RFP was drafted and sent out before Gov. Scott Walker signed Act 14, Weishan charged that the Abele administration is treating the bidding process as if it was developed after Act 14 cut the board’s responsibilities.

Previously, Weishan said, supervisors had a say in drafting the terms of the county’s RFPs, but supervisors had no say in this transit RFP.

“They claimed that legally we didn’t have a right to see it and they thought that we would inappropriately divulge that information to potential bidders,” Weishan said.

Abele spokesman Brendan Conway indicated that supervisors didn’t have a role in the vendor-selection process.

“Given the administrative nature of RFPs, we have never sought, nor have been asked to have supervisor input in prior transit management RFPs,” Conway emailed the Shepherd. He added that the RFP includes language that allows the board to retain power over policy decisions. 

The previous transit management contract was negotiated when Walker was county executive.

In his testimony before the transit committee in April, Transportation Director Brian Dranzik wouldn’t tell supervisors who was picked to sit on the review committee that is vetting the proposals.

Conway wrote that the panel would select one vendor and that the county had the right to negotiate terms “up to approval by the board of the selected vendor.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Weishan said the supervisors didn’t have a representative on the review committee.

“I have no idea who’s on the review panel,” Weishan said.

Act 14 also changed the board’s oversight of contracts. Contracts over $300,000 such as this one now only require approval by the Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee and the full board. The relevant committees with knowledge of the issues are bypassed.

“This is likely to be heard by the [finance committee], as contracts are heard by this committee, but the goal is to have it ready also for [the transit committee] in September if it is referred to that committee as well,” Conway wrote in his email.

Weishan was concerned that the contract wouldn’t go to the transit committee and supervisors wouldn’t be allowed to amend any agreements.

“I would think that they will just come in and say ‘This is our pick and vote yes or no’ and they will fight tooth and nail so you don’t get to see things side by side and compare them,” Weishan said.

Weishan said he wouldn’t approve a for-profit transit operator since he doesn’t believe that profits can be wrung out of the cash-strapped system without sacrificing service or hiking fares. He’s concerned that only highly used routes would be kept while less popular routes would be cut to save money and turn a profit.

Fewer MCTS routes would jeopardize paratransit service, especially on the far north and far south sides of the county, he said. Federal law requires paratransit service to be offered within three-quarters of a mile of all bus stops.

“I have no interest in privatizing this service,” Weishan said.

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