With tens of millions of dollars at stake, Boston’s leading watchdog agency is urging school officials to delay awarding a new transportation contract to the sole bidder and have the state inspector general investigate whether the process excluded competition.
The Boston Finance Commission’s recommendations come one month after the school system’s current transportation operator, Transdev, emerged as the only bidder.
Transdev has been at the epicenter of ongoing problems with late school buses that prompted state officials this year to demand Boston Public Schools get at least 95 percent of buses to school on time each month, a benchmark BPS and Transdev have yet to meet.
The finance commission is questioning whether BPS wrote the bid in a way that excluded competition. Specifically, BPS set a requirement that bidders must have experience running transportation systems for at least three entities that are at least half the size of BPS’s busing fleet, a bar that severely restricted competition.
BPS operates about 600 buses a day and has more than 100 other buses on reserve. Transdev, which has operated the district fleet for nearly a decade, is an international transportation company based in France.
Matthew Cahill, the agency’s executive director, sent Superintendent Mary Skipper a letter Monday outlining the agency’s concerns. The finance commission has the power to investigate all city contracts and other matters it deems necessary, but does not have the ability to enforce the recommendations in the letter.
“The Finance Commission is concerned that without a rational and a complete explanation of the need for all vendors to have experience with three contracts operating a fleet of at least 50% of the total size of the BPS fleet, that the requirement is arbitrary, artificially limited competition, and could increase costs to the taxpayers of the City of Boston,” Cahill wrote. “The inclusion of this requirement should be fully investigated.”
The commission received several complaints about the bidding process, which prompted the agency to take a closer look, Cahill said in his letter.
BPS defended the bidding process in a statement, saying “it is essential that the transportation vendor have the experience and resources to handle the sheer volume of students in need of transportation.” It also noted it tapped two consultants, Intueor Consulting and Transportation Advisory Services, to design a bid that would meet their operational needs and attract as many qualified bidders as possible.
“BPS worked closely with industry experts and City personnel to prepare and release an invitation for bids that was best-suited to meet the needs of the students of Boston and to conduct an open and competitive bidding process,” the district said in a statement. “BPS is not aware of any investigations underway with regards to the bidding process.”
The school district said it plans to present the contract next month to the School Committee, which needs to approve it.
The new transportation contract would begin next summer and would last five years with the option for three one-year extensions. BPS included incentives to reward strong performance and “limited but consequential” damages for poor performance.
Transdev estimated the first year of its proposal would cost $17.5 million in management fees, wages, and other costs.
A spokesman for the Inspector General’s Office declined to say whether it was investigating.
Initially, there was strong interest among transportation companies when BPS first began the bidding process in September to run its busing program, which transports about 22,000 students each day to more than 220 public and private schools and specialized programs. More than 30 interested parties participated in a prebid conference call, but only four ended up giving the contract serious consideration.
During the bidding process, one of the four potential bidders questioned the minimum fleet requirement and asked if it could be reduced to experience with fleets of at least 150 buses, according to Cahill’s letter, but BPS refused, saying “the bid specifications will not be modified.”
“The requirement appears to have eliminated . . . the third largest operator in the United States,” Cahill wrote.
BPS said none of the four companies cited the minimum bid requirements as a reason for not ultimately submitting a bid. Companies can file letters at the end of the process explaining why they didn’t submit a bid. BPS wouldn’t release any of those letters to The Boston Globe Tuesday.
Cahill also questioned whether Transdev met the criteria. The commission’s review of Transdev’s bid indicated that it appeared Transdev had experience with one other entity that had a bus fleet at least half the size of BPS’s busing program.
Transdev could not be reached for comment.