While 25 companies initially expressed interest in taking over the contract for Massachusetts’s commuter rail service, only two submitted bids, including the current contract holder. Somehow, the other 23 came to believe the contract either wasn’t worth the effort or was so clearly in the bag for the current operator, Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, that it wasn’t worth bidding. Only Keolis, an international transportation firm that is running rail service from northern Virginia to Washington, DC, took a shot at the estimated $1 billion contract.
Whether the other companies were scared away by the T’s financial instability and crumbling infrastructure, or they literally felt T officials would put their thumbs on the scale for a favorite firm, it’s a poor reflection on the T’s management.
The T’s acting general manager, Jonathan Davis, and his boss, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey, need to take a hard look at a bidding process that yielded so few options. Boston is the nation’s sixth-heaviest user of public transit, so one would think companies would be lining up to manage the MBTA’s commuter rail.
But ridership hasn’t grown nearly as much as many expected, and lags behind the rest of the system, in part because of complaints about delays and other inconveniences like air-conditioner breakdowns. And there are some serious structural obstacles, starting with the T’s cancerous debt, which Beacon Hill has yet to address with anything resembling a competent long-term spending plan.
So it’s possible that potential bidders saw problems on the horizon, and didn’t want to sign on for what’s expected to be a five or ten-year contract. But those are challenges all the bidders would have faced, including the incumbent. It’s at least equally plausible that bidders believed that Mass. Bay, a company founded by James O’Leary, a former T general manager who was a mentor to Davey, is so politically entrenched that current T managers can’t be trusted to maintain a level playing field.
Keolis, at least, is considered a credible challenger for the contract, with experience managing similar railroads around the world. Davey and Davis should make sure that both bidders focus intently on ways to upgrade service, while making the most of the T’s scarce resources. Much is riding on this contract, and the T’s managers have to act as though their reputations depend on it — which they do.