Evaluations of two dueling bids for the state’s multibillion-dollar commuter rail contract suggest that managers at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had grown skeptical of the current operator’s ability to deliver on promises to improve service and usher in innovation, according to documents released by the T this week.
For the most part, the team of more than two dozen transportation officials concluded that both the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. and Keolis Commuter Services were competent operators that could deliver adequate service in coming years.
But when it came to bidders’ promises to improve on-time performance and mechanical reliability and to modernize technology, some T officials questioned whether MBCR is capable of change.
“They gave examples on where they would improve, but didn’t tell me how they would operate differently from today,” wrote Mary Ainsley, the T’s senior director of design and construction. “They have the same person in place as the head of engineering. Why would it be any different?”
The months-long vetting process ended with the French-owned transit firm Keolis winning the $2.68 billion contract, the largest operating contract in state history. The process was largely conducted in secret, out of sight of the public and the bidders, as evaluators were taken to an off-site location to review the competing proposals, barred from even bringing their cellphones.
The evaluations, made public more quickly after MBCR took the T to court, reveal both the process and the thinking that led to the unexpected decision to oust the incumbent contractor.
At a Massachusetts Department of Transportation board meeting earlier this month MBTA general manager Beverly A. Scott said the appeal of Keolis’s lower bid was bolstered by the good rating evaluators awarded its proposal, versus the merely acceptable rating garnered by MBCR.
Those ratings came from a three-member selection committee, composed of chief operating officer Sean M. McCarthy, chief financial officer Jonathan R. Davis, and Ted Basta, chief of strategic business initiatives and innovation at the T. Their assessments were based on reports submitted by more than two dozen T managers who evaluated particular parts of the proposals based on their area of expertise.
The selection committee’s final thoughts are measured, conveying confidence in Keolis while pointing out that the company will face challenges. They said that Keolis’s proposal lacked details on improving accommodations for people with disabilities and acknowledged that the company had garnered a lower rating than MBCR in its plans to work with minority-owned businesses.
Additionally, they worried that Keolis’s proposed chief mechanical officer had little experience managing mechanical operations at an agency as large as that it proposed running in Massachusetts: the fifth-largest commuter rail system in the country, making 140,000 daily passenger trips.
Still, they said, Keolis’s management team “is extremely strong, led by two established leaders at the top of the organization that clearly understand what it takes to run a successful commuter rail operation,” the selection committee wrote in its summary, adding that the proposed director of safety is “a rising star in the industry.”
Some comments from the various evaluation committees were more exuberant: For some, Keolis’s proposal prompted sterling reviews, sprinkled with exclamation points, and emphatic affirmations, sometimes expressed in all caps, like “great idea.”
But when it came to MBCR the tone was not enthusiastic.
“MBCR commits to improving the [on-time performance] from a ‘contractual 96.3’ to 97%. This is not much improvement,” wrote Bradley Kesler, director of railroad operations. “The majority of delayed trains today fall into ‘excusable’ categories that will not exist under this new contract. There is no indication that MBCR will make any improvement in this area.”
Ed Hunter, assistant general manager for design and construction, wrote that he agreed with MBCR’s proposal to invest in more advanced scheduling software, but wondered why the company had not installed it. “Although a good idea,” Hunter said, noting MBCR’s 10-year tenure, “it should have been done by now.”
Meanwhile, Steve Jones, MBTA’s deputy director of railroad operations, said he was impressed with many of Keolis’s fresh ideas, such as a requirement that all managers ride a train at least once per month.
“While further analysis of these proposals may prove ‘easier said than done,’ the proposer is thinking out of the box and consistently offers a new/different way to do business, based on analysis, and not building on what has historically been done,” Jones wrote.
Jones seemed unimpressed by MBCR’s proposal.
“While there are a number of initiatives to enhance past practices, for the most part they were not robust or innovative,” he wrote.
While largely positive, some evaluations of Keolis noted concerns, such as vagaries on how the company planned to fulfill its environmental management responsibilities.
Basta, who also served on several of the subcommittees, wrote that Keolis had misunderstood some of the T’s requirements for minority- and women-owned business involvement and failed to offer the information necessary for a good rating.
MBCR officials, who had taken the T to court to compel the swift release of the documents, declined to comment on the specifics of the evaluations, but said they are still seeking additional documentation, such as e-mails between MBTA staff, as they decide whether to file a protest of the T’s decision.
“MBCR has not received all of the public records promised for release, including internal communications among the MBTA staff, leaders and their consultants,” MBCR spokesman Scott Farmelant said.
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the T planned to release all the records to which MBCR is entitled.