Tri-Rail’s suspicious $500+ million procurement

Why should residents of the Tampa Bay area care about a procurement by Tri-Rail, a transit agency in southeast Florida? Because $57 million of state funds annually go to fund Tri-Rail. The three counties in which Tri-Rail operates only kick in $4.7 million per year in total.

Now there are questions about a major procurement by Tri-Rail: FloridaPolitics.Com reports that Tri-Rail disqualified 5 out of 6 bidders bidding on a $511 million dollar 10-year contract. All five disqualified vendors had lower bids that the “winning” bidder. The stated reasons for disqualification seemed suspect, and that’s why we’ve been investigating this matter since before the story broke in the media.

incentive_planPublic agencies must take care to insure a process that causes qualified vendors to bid when the agency issues a RFP (Request For Proposal). If vendors believe they have no chance of winning the contract, they will have no incentive to bid on the next procurement that agency engages in. This in turn results in higher prices being paid by the taxpayers, and possibly worse outcomes in other areas as well.

The Guardian was waiting to receive public records it requested from Tri-Rail on Tuesday when the story first broke on Wednesday. We continued to wait patiently on Thursday when Politico Florida broke the story wide open with this article. State senator Jeff Brandes, chairman of the Senate Transportation Appropriations sub committee is now asking the Tri-Rail board to delay awarding the contract.

The bids ranged from $375 million to $511 million, suggesting that the RFP was perhaps not as clear as it could have been on important cost-driving factors. Tri-Rail is exempt from state procurement laws, despite the $57 million it receives from the state each year.

Jeff Brandes
Jeff Brandes

Apart from the facts about the procurement itself, senator Brandes may have other good reasons to scrutinize this particular procurement: Tri-Rail’s contracted lobbying firm was also the lobbyist for the winning bidder up until August 31 last year. The RFP was issued the following month.

No, what you just read was not one big typo, see the Politico Florida article for all the eyebrow-raising details.

The Guardian expects to have more to report on this matter as we scrutinize board member appointment schedules and other public records – when we finally receive those records.

Tri-Rail is formally known as the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA). In its last fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2016, SFRTA reported ridership was a mere 4.2 million rides, a decline of 1.2% compared to the previous year. The ridership is paltry by comparison with PSTA (Pinellas County) and HART (Hillsborough County), with each agency reporting ridership of over 12 million per year.

Readers should note that one “rider” does not equal one person. For example, a person who uses a Tri-Rail commuter bus to get to a Tri-Rail train station to then commute to work will count as a total of two rides. If they return home in the evening by the same route, they will count as two more rides. So it is one round-trip commute to work, but four rides.

Tri-Rail’s total budget per year is approximately $198 million dollars. That means that each one of those 4.2 million “rides” cost about $47 to deliver.

The Tri-Rail logo (below) suggest a confusion about which direction the agency is going in. The facts known so far about this half billion dollar procurement suggest at best confusion about or ignorance of important considerations in public procurement.

trirail_graphic_700

As always, the Guardian reports and the readers decide. Please like our Facebook page to find out when we publish new stories.

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