Who is going to run the Midlands bus system?
Who is going to supervise Richland County’s billion-dollar Transportation Penny projects?
There have been delays in both pursuits, though leaders familiar with the negotiations say they are very close to completion.
Negotiations to hire an operator to run the Midlands bus system have dragged on months longer than expected.
The top-ranked firm for the 10-year contract terminated negotiations, according to county officials, who did not release the company’s name. But the reason for the termination has not been revealed.
There were reports that the contract required a commitment to hiring local and minority-owned subcontractors and that the county was receiving “community input” on the hiring.
Those reports worry Bob Liming, a bus rider advocate who has worked to improve the bus system for years. He wrote a letter to bus board chairman Brian Newman expressing those views.
“I’ve served over three decades in federal, state and county public service drafting dozens of Requests for Proposals (RFPs), bid selection committees and negotiating teams and I’ve never heard of eliminating a first-ranked bidder on input from ‘community leaders’ once the process has started, if in fact that was the case in this instance,” Liming said in the letter.
Liming says the appropriate procedure in any bid process is to seek public comment and recommendations prior to the RFP being finalized.
But both Lill Mood and Mac Bennett, members of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority’s procurement committee, say there has been no change in the specifications sought by the committee.
Mood says she cannot reveal why the council ended negotiations with the top ranked participant. But she does acknowledge that the contract requires that 30 percent of the services sought by the system go to minority-owned businesses.
Bennett also acknowledges that getting close to that 30 percent mark is a factor in the selection process, but he declined to identify that as the reason the negotiations were canceled.
Bob Schneider, executive director of the CMRTA, says there are so many different requirements the contractors must reach that it would be difficult to base a cancellation on just one.
The three companies competing for the multimillion dollar contract were First Transit, Keolis and Veolia Transportation, which currently operates the system.
Mood says the selection process will be completed soon, possibly this month.
Meanwhile, the bus system is in a state of growth and has already restored former routes and will soon resume Sunday service.
Schneider says bus service in southern Columbia will soon increase by 30 percent.
The system also has a promotion campaign designed to encourage people who don’t normally use the bus system to give it a try. Bus riders can get a discount on ticket prices when they take the COMET, as the system is now branded, to the Riverbanks Zoo.
The process of choosing a firm to coordinate Richland County’s Transportation Penny projects has been similarly drawn out.
Last week, the county celebrated the first of the Transportation Penny’s projects at Mt. Pilgrim Church Road in a ceremonial groundbreaking, even though the leadership team is not in place. The road paving project is part of the $45 million set aside for 230 miles in dirt roads improvements in the county.
“We are excited,” says Rob Perry, Richland County’s director of transportation said of that project and upcoming plans. He said preparations are now underway to pave another seven miles of dirt roads.
But the county is still looking for a supervisory team to direct the projects, and that process hasn’t gone smoothly.
According to county officials, Richland County Council selected Kentucky-based ICA Engineering from a field of five teams to oversee the program. The second-place finisher, CECS of Columbia, protested the award of the contract, claiming it had a higher score in the rankings.
The council decided to rescind its vote and restart the process all over again, concerned that the first selection process had been flawed enough to open the county to legal challenges. The contract process has now resumed and officials say a leadership team could be in place by July.
Meanwhile, the watchdog Transportation Penny Advisory Committee has not been satisfied with the information members are receiving. At a meeting in April, the panel approved a recommendation that the future project management team meet with the members and provide updates every six months.
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