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Shirley Leung

A ‘favorite’ finds himself in line of fire

Most people paying attention thought the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. had the state’s new multibillion-dollar commuter rail contract in the bag. But not Jim O’Leary, chairman of MBCR, which has helped run our commuter rail system for a decade.

In fact, he felt encumbered as the incumbent. Far from being the favorite to land the contract again, O’Leary said, he was in the line of fire, with the T under pressure to improve service.

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“To convince the public you want change, the easiest way to do that, to use a baseball analogy, is to change the coach,” O’Leary, 65, said at his downtown Boston office this week.

Being the current vendor is a “burden,” one his team tried to overcome by going all-out on its bid. “We didn’t assume anything,” he said.

MBCR lost the $2.68 billion contract to the French company Keolis, and on Thursday filed for an injunction in Suffolk Superior Court to stop the deal, alleging the procurement process was flawed. MBCR is a consortium of O’Leary’s transportation company, Alternate Concepts, Veolia, and Bombardier.

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Sure, there’s a lot of money at stake, but doesn’t this just look like sour grapes? After all, Keolis came in with a lower bid that impressed T management.

“I have been in business for 25 years, and we have never filed a protest” over a contract, O’Leary said. “Honestly, we’re baffled at some of things we’ve discovered in this process. And we think we deserve — and frankly, the public deserves — answers to some of the questions raised in our lawsuit.”

Complicating everything has been O’Leary’s relationship with Rich Davey, his protege. Davey is now state transportation secretary and was recruited from MBCR.

Ironically, O’Leary got to know Davey when he hired him a decade ago after MBCR won the commuter rail contract. Davey, a lawyer, helped with the transition from Amtrak, which had run our commuter rail. He then became MBCR’s general counsel and later its general manager.

To tamp down talk of having an inside track, Davey early on recused himself from the process of awarding what would become the largest operating contract in state history.

In the end, O’Leary said, his ties with Davey hurt everyone involved.

“His leadership was very much missing during this process,” he said. “He knows more about commuter rail than probably anyone in the organization.”

Beverly Scott, MBTA general manager, has no problem with the way her agency handled the contract. “I am more than comfortable with the process and the result,” she said.

She can sympathize with O’Leary, whom she reached out to in January after the board vote. “I wasn’t trying to make lemons [into] lemonade,” Scott said, adding that she called to tell him his “services have been greatly appreciated through the years.”

To the riding public — more than 125,000 weekday passengers — commuter rail problems under MBCR symbolized all that was wrong with the T. Air conditioning woes in summer; frequent breakdowns and delays in winter; declining ridership. It was hard to blame the T board for wanting someone new.

But O’Leary said many issues can be attributed to aging equipment and will dog whoever operates commuter rail. The T has refurbished a good chunk of its fleet, but only in recent years purchased new locomotives and coaches. Still, O’Leary said, MBCR fixed problems and improved service. Air conditioning in coaches, for example, has operated at a 99 percent rate for the past three summers.

If O’Leary ends up losing, it will also end a Massachusetts rail career that started in 1981 when, at the age of 32, he was named MBTA general manager. He served eight years and two governors, Ed King and Mike Dukakis, overseeing the extension of the Red Line past Harvard Square and a major renovation of South Station.

O’Leary’s other footnote in political history is his “squeaky-clean” image. In his first week as T manager, he opened an envelope addressed to his boss, Transportation Secretary Barry Locke. It was stuffed with $1,000 in cash. O’Leary went to the attorney general. Locke was subsequently convicted of bribery and served jail time.

MBCR represents about 20 percent of O’Leary’s business. Alternate Concepts also has rail projects in Denver, Phoenix, and Puerto Rico and runs bus operations locally, including Massport shuttles.

Last week, O’Leary was in Newark, Baltimore, and Dallas, hunting for new work in case he loses in his home state.

With the contract game gone to extra innings, so much for home field advantage.

Shirley Leung can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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