Dispute over bus contract gets November court date

The controversy involving a $600 million bus contract is scheduled to return to District Court next month after First Transit filed a second complaint asking a judge to intervene and break a six-month stalemate.

The eight-member Regional Transportation Commission has consistently voted 4-4 on whether to award the contract to First Transit, allow incumbent operator Veolia Transportation to keep it or toss out all the bids and start the process over again.

The agency's transit fleet consists of 36 routes served by 379 vehicles. In 2009, those buses carried 57,738,930 passengers in the greater Las Vegas Valley.

In September, District Judge Rob Bare told attorneys representing First Transit, Veolia and the Regional Transportation Commission that he would intervene if the board continued to deadlock on its votes. He emphasized the urgency of awarding a new contract because the current agreement has expired.

Bare set the bus contract hearing for 1:30 p.m. Nov. 16.

Veolia is operating the bus system on a month-to-month contract extension that cannot extend beyond March. It has operated the fixed-route bus system since the 1990s.

Bare's strong message to the board to quickly resolve the matter was followed by a letter from the Federal Transit Administration, which threatened to pull funding if the impasse continues.

On Oct. 13, commissioners voted 4-4 to award First Transit the contract and then tied again on a motion to reject First Transit's bid and reissue a request for proposals. First transit runs the Para Transit system, which caters to the severely disabled.

"Implementation of the contract has been deadlocked for months and is at a point where there is no expectation on the part of the (Regional Transportation Commission) that its impasse can be resolved," attorney Pete Gibson wrote in the complaint.

In May, the board voted 4-3 to award the contract to First Transit, whose bid was $50 million less over the seven-year life of the contract. Veolia challenged the decision, saying that it did not constitute a majority vote because the commission is made up of eight members. The attorney general's office agreed and forced the board to rescind the vote in June.

In September, Bare ruled that the May vote was indeed legal. He said the Transportation Commission is exempt from a state law that says a majority vote is based on the number of members on the board, not the number of members present at a meeting.

He stopped short of awarding First Transit the contract because of the subsequent June vote that nixed the earlier decision.

Gibson noted in his complaint that even board members anticipated during their October meeting that the contract would be decided in court. He also said that the board did not request another item regarding the bus contract to be placed on November's agenda.

"Under these circumstances, the Nevada Supreme Court has endorsed judicial intervention to break the impasse by mandamus," the complaint said.

Bare noted in September that a precedent for intervening was established in the 1990s, when the city of Las Vegas' zoning board continued to deadlock on zoning matters related to the Meadows mall. A judge stepped in and resolved the issue.

Las Vegas City Council members Steve Ross and Lois Tarkanian and Clark County Commissioners Larry Brown and Chris Giunchigliani, who are members of the transportation board, have consistently voted for Veolia, raising concerns that union workers could see their salaries and benefits cut if First Transit wins because of the company's low bid.

Mesquite City Councilman Kraig Hafen, Boulder City Mayor Roger Tobler, North Las Vegas City Councilman Robert Eliason and Henderson City Councilwoman Debra March are pushing for First Transit, saying in this economy, bus routes will be less at risk because the company is saving the transportation agency money.

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