The long deliberations to contract with an operator for the Midlands bus system will get even longer as COMET board members voted Friday to start the bidding process all over again.
Friday’s decision comes on the heels of the May 28 meeting at which the board deadlocked on one proposal to rebid and another to contract with Keolis. The new rebid measure passed 10-1 at Friday’s meeting, with board member Jake Broom casting the dissenting vote.
Board Chair Brian Newman would not reveal why the board decided to rebid the project that is already taking months longer than expected. He said he couldn’t discuss the reasons because they were deliberated in executive session and are not allowed to be made public.
But Newman said the delays shouldn’t be viewed as a problem, but as an effort to make the best decision on a contract that will last for years.
“We want to get the best operator,” he said. He predicted the selection would be made by September or October.
He said the contract delays would not affect riders adversely.
Newman said there may be some changes in the bid process, which will be open to any contractor. The board is reviewing the Request for Proposal (RFP) process and may have a third party provide an audit of the contract.
Bob Liming, a bus rider’s advocate and frequent critic of the system, says it shouldn’t take eight months for the board to undertake something as simple as a RFP, especially with all of the expertise the COMET staff is supposed to have. He described it as “an embarrassment to every elected official in Richland County.”
The three companies competing for the multi-million dollar contract are First Transit, Keolis and Veolia Transportation, which currently operates the system.
The current contract with Veolia was set to expire April 1, but that date has been pushed back as the negotiations continue.
The contract value is estimated at $7.5 million for the first year, but that number would grow to more than $12 million per year by 2020 as services are added, according to county officials.