Bus contract fight may end today

Accusations and finger-pointing between rank-and-file workers and their union leaders as well as between the two competing international transit companies should be put to rest today when the Regional Transportation Commission chooses the company that will manage its bus system.

Commissioners, who have been subjected to heavy lobbying by political powerhouses for weeks, are scheduled to decide who operates the largest fixed-route bus system in the United States. The lucrative three-year contract also offers a pair of two-year extensions.

Veolia Transportation, whose agreement with the commission expires in September, has held the contract since 1993.

When a request for proposals was issued earlier this year, First Transit came in with a bid that was $50 million less over a seven-year period.

Commissioners delayed the decision last month after Veolia representatives questioned how First Transit could provide the required services for an amount so significantly less than Veolia's bid.

"We're confident that our numbers are accurate and right on," Veolia spokeswoman Valerie Michael said Tuesday. "We've been operating this contract for 19 years. The number we used for the proposal is based on operations, not numbers based on guesses."

An outside financial analyst was hired by the Regional Transportation Commission to determine whether the figures submitted by First Transit were feasible. Financial expert Jeremy Aguero is expected to present his findings today.

"They have asked, 'How can you be $7 million (a year) less expensive?' " said consultant Terry Murphy, who represents First Transit. "What we're saying is we'll tell you how, but maybe the question you should be asking is why Veolia is so expensive."

Murphy said the savings come from fuel consumption technology and existing corporate purchasing agreements that significantly reduce the prices of certain services. Over all, she said, the company is more conservative and would make a lower profit than Veolia would with its proposal.

Leaders of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1637 have publicly rallied in favor of First Transit, claiming that Veolia Transportation representatives had bullied employees and spread false rumors about the competition. The rank and file, which consists of drivers and mechanics, have made it clear they want Veolia to remain their employer.

Union members' contract expired in December. The union negotiates with the operating company, not the Regional Transportation Commission.

"The employees have said, as they have all along, that they want Veolia to stay in," Michael said. "They've continued to talk to commission and council people. They are very concerned about the contract and are pushing very hard."

However, Jacob Snow, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission, has recommended that the board choose First Transit.

First Transit has also tried to calm nerves by sending a memo to workers explaining that they would see a minimum of a 3 percent salary increase in the first year.

Snow's agency, which is fueled by sales tax revenue, is struggling financially. The stream of money funding the transit system has fallen to $130 million a year. That is a $60 million drop since 2006. Saving $50 million over a seven-year period means fewer routes would have to be reduced or eliminated, he said.

"In taking a look at what would have to be cut, it would be 100,000 service hours if for some reason the commission goes with a proposal that is not the one we recommended to them," Snow said.

Michael said she had not heard that such significant cuts would be made if Veolia lands the contract.

Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at apacker@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2904.