Saturday, December 30, 2006

Bus deal becoming a fiasco - Who's to blame?

Broward County FL - A news story from the Miami Herald tells of more woes for Broward County Transit (BCT). Besides a maintenance backlog and missed service, which was told about in an earlier Laurels & Lances column, we get more details on the reason why no new buses have been ordered for the system.

BCT put out an invitation to bid for an order of buses and received bids from North American Bus Industries (NABI) and New Flyer Industries (NFI). NABI bid $116 million while NFI's bid came in at $141 million. The problem was that BCT tossed NABI's bid and awarded the contract to NFI and NABI filed a protest.

Apparently NABI didn't meet the specifications written up by BCT which was the reason the bid was tossed in favor of a more expensive contractor.

Let's examine this for a minute. Transit systems across the US all write their own specifications for buses they order. Buses, unlike cars, aren't pre-built but are all custom built. Everything on the bus order has specifications that must be met, practically down to the last bolt.

The problem with this industry practice is that it allows systems to nitpick when they receive a bid from a builder they don't want. Given that most systems work under low-bid or preferred low bidder laws, when a system gets a low bid in from a manufacturer they don't want, they can and do nitpick over the silliest things in order to try and toss the low bid in favor of the manufacturer that the system wants.

The reasons behind why a system wants a certain manufacturer over another can vary widely. From a slick sales pitch down to legitimate concerns from previous bad experiences with a particular manufacturer. When a low bid is tossed and the reason for the bid being tossed is danced around, such as is happening in Broward County, it raises flags that the reason for the bid being tossed isn't legitimate.

From how the news report reads, I get the distinct impression that there isn't a problem with the bid that NABI submitted besides that they weren't the manufacturer that the BCT wanted. It is not uncommon for bids to be tossed simply over the personal preference of key officials.

While there could very well be a legitimate reason for tossing NABI's low bid, the simple fact that the BCT Director, Christopher Walton, danced around the reason with the reporter on why he recommended the higher bid from NFI tells me there wasn't a good reason. If there was a valid reason, it would have been stated.

The BCT can't be picky and because they have been, they will need to spend about $20,000 per bus more to meet newer environmental requirements for 2007 model buses. NABI isn't to blame for the higher cost for the delayed 2006 order which will need adjusted for 2007 prices regardless of who is ultimately awarded the bid. The BCT is to blame for choosing to spend $25 million more of taxpayer money on the higher initial bid from NFI.

Broward County Transit officials get the Lance for what is obviously a thinly veiled attempt to skirt the procurement process through selective enforcement of the procurement procedures. The actions taken by the BCT have hurt the transit system through not replacing buses that need replaced which has caused system wide service delays. It also will ultimately cost the taxpayer much more money, money that shouldn't have to be spent if the BCT accepted the NABI bid.

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