BOSTON (AP)- The Massachusetts transportation board on Wednesday agreed to a multi-billion contract with a new operator for the state's commuter rail network, rejecting a competing bid by the company that has run the system for the past decade.
Keolis Commuter Services, an offshoot of French transit giant Keolis, beat out Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, or MBCR, in a 6-0 vote. The proposed agreement, the largest operating contract in state history, would begin July 1 and run for eight years, with an additional four-year option, and potentially reach $4.26 billion over the 12-year period.
The commuter rail system, part of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, includes hundreds of miles of track in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and carries about 70,000 roundtrip passengers each weekday.
The board accepted a recommendation from MBTA officials who evaluated proposals from both bidders over the past several months.
MBCR has operated the system since 2003 under an initial five-year contract and a series of shorter extensions. Company officials sharply criticized the selection process, saying they had not been allowed to fully explain the proposal to keep the operating contract.
James O'Leary, chairman of MBCR, said the company was given less than two hours to present its plan to the MBTA's selection committee, and was asked fewer than a dozen questions.
"We can only conclude that our proposal was never seriously considered or understood," O'Leary told the board prior to Wednesday's vote.
MBCR unsuccessfully urged the board to delay a vote for at least 30 days so more information could be delivered.
Beverly Scott, the MBTA's general manager, defended the selection process as fair to both companies and beneficial to commuters.
"The new contract sets a 'no excuses' expectation that the operator will run the trains on time," Scott told the board.
The agreement contains more stringent performance requirements and up to $12 million in annual penalties if the operator does not meet expectations, compared to the $3 million in annual penalties in the existing contract with MBCR, Scott said. And there would be no added performance incentives for Keolis, as the current operator enjoyed.
Keolis' final bid totaled about $254 million less over the 12-year period than MBCR's final bid and Keolis will be paid $304 million in the first year of the contract, compared to the $316 million that MBCR currently receives, MBTA officials said.
Scott stressed that financial considerations alone did not determine the contract award and that the two bidders - which she said were both "extremely capable" - were also evaluated on 11 operational and managerial factors, with Keolis earning an overall grade of "good" and MBCR "acceptable."
MBCR was criticized for its performance during the harsh winter of 2010-2011, when system failures resulted in hundreds of hours of delays. The problems were blamed largely on the MBTA's antiquated fleet of locomotives, and the company cited an overall 95 percent on time performance record during its operation.
Several union leaders also asked the board to put off a vote on the operator, questioning whether Keolis could negotiate new labor deals with more than a dozen rail unions by the July 1 takeover date.
Steve Townsend, president of Keolis Commuter Services, said he was confident that union agreements would be in place.
Keolis was praised by advocates for disabled riders and by several black community leaders for making strong guarantees of diversity in future hiring.
Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Richard Davey, the seventh member of the board, recused himself from Wednesday's vote and the entire selection process because he formerly served as general manager of MBCR.
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