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Shirley Leung

French rail firm Keolis built an inside track

Turns out that French firm Keolis, the newcomer and current favorite to win the state’s commuter rail system contract, has been laying down its own inside track to secure the $2.68 billion deal.

Much has been made about the cozy ties and revolving door between the current rail operator and the state. The Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. is run by Jim O’Leary, the wunderkid who oversaw the T in the ’80s and mentored current state transportation secretary Rich Davey.

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With the MBCR being perceived as having the upper hand, one of the most lucrative rail contracts around attracted only two bidders: the incumbent and Keolis. Twenty-five companies had initially expressed interest, and the T had hoped for at least a half dozen bids.

On Wednesday, Beverly Scott, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, will recommend to her board an end to MBCR’s 11-year troubled reign and give Keolis the nod at running our commuter trains. The eight-year deal is shaping up to be the most lucrative operating contract in state history and could be worth even more, as much as $4.3 billion, when a four-year extension is factored in.

If the French transit company prevails, the new arrival will have done it the old-fashioned way — through greasing the wheels with the help of local insiders. By my count, Team Keolis includes two former state transportation secretaries, a local commuter rail chief, and a former Boston city councilor.

It all started in January 2012 when Keolis executives reached out to Pat Moynihan, the former state transportation secretary, T manager, and Big Dig project director. Keolis and its parent, SNCF, are known globally with operations in Australia, Canada, and Europe, but have little name recognition here. Keolis has one rail contract stateside, running the Virginia Railway Express and its 32 trains, which carry about 21,000 people daily. That’s a tiny fraction of the Massachusetts system, which operates nearly 500 commuter trains and ferries about 127,000 passengers a day.

The company’s chief concerns: Would there be a level playing field for all bidders? A bid would be a big investment — Keolis spent more than $4 million on its proposal.

And what about Davey, the state transportation secretary? Could he be objective? Before he came to work for the state, Davey was the general manager at MBCR, following the path of others who have moved over from there.

Early on, Davey recused himself from the selection process, and though a member of the T board, he won’t be voting on the project. Moynihan couldn’t make other assurances but could make introductions so Keolis executives could figure it out for themselves.

Moynihan, who served under governors Weld, Cellucci, and King, became Keolis’s lobbyist and brought along Mike McCormack, a former city councilor, now a lawyer and lobbyist. Later, longtime lobbyist Bobby White, a Dorchester native with deeps roots in the State House and City Hall political orbits, joined the team. All told, according to state filings, Keolis paid $450,000 in lobbying fees over two years. The company ended up meeting several dozen elected officials, transit leaders, and other stakeholders. Jim Stoetzel, who ran commuter rail service in the state back in the ’80s, also came on board. After six months of meetings, Keolis decided to bid.

Late last spring, McCormack looped in Alan Eisner — from George Regan’s PR shop — to act as spokesman for Keolis locally. Eisner, who has since gone off on his own, has on retainer Jim Kerasiotes to give advice on transportation and government affairs. (Yes, that Jim Kerasiotes, the former transportation secretary and Big Dig manager who hid $1.4 billion in cost overruns and was eventually forced to resign.)

Keolis started out as the outsider, but this French company quickly picked up a thick Boston accent.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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