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Adrian Walker

Commuter rail fight getting a bit off track

Richard Taylor — longtime fixture of the black business community and former state secretary of transportation — would appreciate it if everyone would just shut up about the fried chicken.

A few years ago Taylor owned a Popeyes across the street from Fenway Park, the one later famously patronized by Josh Beckett and John Lackey. The venture did not go well. Taylor was fined by the state in 2010 for failing to pay his employees, many of them struggling immigrants. Eventually his restaurant ended up with new ownership that did not include him.

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“It was a business I never should have been in,” Taylor said last week, groaning. “I hope I don’t have to hear about it every time I try to do something.”

I mention all this because the “something” Taylor is now seeking is far more ambitious: a partnership with the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. in its effort to land a second term running the state’s commuter rail service. A French-owned company named Keolis is also competing for that contract.

The battle between MBCR and Keolis had been, until recently, a typical state contract battle — which is to say, of interest to about 37 people, many of whom have done business with or against each other for decades. But now the commuter rail contract has, with little notice, become something else: a racially charged lightning rod.

The first sign that the commuter rail contract was heading into unexpected territory came a couple of weeks ago, when a group of ministers led by the Rev. Bruce Wall released a letter questioning Keolis's track record on diversity in its overseas operations. A second letter stressed neutrality, maintaining that the ministers were not supporting MBCR or Keolis, though their actions could only bolster the bid by MBCR.

Now MBCR has joined forces with Taylor and a group of partners who say they have formed a company called Tubman Transit LLC. If MBCR succeeds in winning the commuter rail contract for a second time, it says, Tubman Transit LLC will operate a new $65 million train maintenance facility in Hyde Park. In addition, MBCR says it would move its headquarters, now located downtown, to Roxbury.

Meanwhile, the Keolis group remains tight-lipped about its plans, other than to say it plans to enter into a partnership with community colleges to train transportation workers. Beyond that, a spokesman has maintained that procurement rules preclude discussing the company’s outreach plans.

Access to jobs is a huge issue, and an extremely legitimate consideration. But MBCR's sudden public announcement of plans that had previously been under seal reflects a certain desperation.

It’s unusual to see ministers involved in a fight over a state contract, typically the domain of elected officials. When the Tubman Transit plan was announced, some of them wondered if they had naively been drawn into a messy battle, one that seems to be playing on racial issues. At the least, they wondered why they had been left in the dark about MBCR's plans. They are right to want minority participation and a fair opportunity at sharing the wealth, but aren’t convinced this is the group to deliver that.

T officials are expected to recommend a winner for the contract in the next few weeks. Here’s a thought: Maybe the contract should go to the company that can do the best job of making the trains run on time. Amid the drama, that consideration has nearly faded from view.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this column misstated the corporate status of Tubman Transit, a minority-owned business seeking to build a $65 million train-maintenance facility in Hyde Park. Tubman Transit LLC is incorporated in Delaware. James Cofield’s ties with the Boston branch of the NAACP were also misidentified. While other members of his family have held office in the branch, Cofield has never been an officer in the chapter, and had no role in the decline of the organization.

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