POLITICALLY MOTIVATED? DEPENDS ON WHO YOU READ
There appear to be two very strong takes on SEPTA's controversial awarding of the Silverliner V contract to a group led by a Korean rail car manufacturer with minimal North American experience, but with plenty of political connections.
The Inquirer's article written by Jere Downs and Nathan Gorenstein on Thursday's public presentation (SEPTA may hire firm it rated low) focused on the numerous political connections between United Transit Systems, LLC - a consortium consisting of Nissho Iwai American Corporation (who was project manager when Kawasaki built the Broad Street and light rail cars in the early 1980's) and Korean-based Rotem - and influential state politicians and political party leaders from both the Demorats and Republicans. Many of these connections, dubbed the "Korean Octopus" by at least one on-line poster not associated with this site, were detailed at this site last week. It also noted that while United Transit Systems was the lowest bidder, it rated the worst among the four bidders in the technical ratings.
To help get the bid, United Transit launched an intensive two-year lobbying campaign. The company hired Alan Novak, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party; SEPTA's former general manager, John K. Leary; and others.
SEPTA general manager Faye Moor (sic) dismissed suggestions that "politics drove our decision."
"These are normal sour grapes. It's disappointing, but it's not surprising. Everybody wanted to have a $300 million contract," the original SEPTA cost estimate. Saving $14 million is the fiscally responsible move, she said.
Sure it is, Fearless Leader. Sure it is. Yet, you can't seem to blame the other bidders for being upset about the way the process went...
Kawasaki is considering "all its options," including a lawsuit, Jitendra S. Tomar, Kawasaki's manager of marketing and business development, said yesterday.
Tomar called the selection of United Transit "disappointing" because SEPTA's technical staff had told Kawasaki the award was "not going to be a low bid, it will be bid on the technical expertise. And what happened today, they just went to the lower bidder."
Kawasaki said it has been building rail cars in the United States for two decades, and has sold cars to Philadelphia and New York City.
I certainly can't comment about the New York City subway cars, but from what I've been told the new bi-level coaches on the Long Island Railroad have been well recieved, as have similar cars used by MARC and Virginia Railway Express.
United Transit, a consortium of Korean firms, was unhappy with its low rating.
"We were very surprised, to say the least," said Richard S. Lewis, the firm's spokesman. "We know one of the key components of the rating system is U.S. experience, but that's the one thing we don't have a lot of. But we have built 32,000 cars," for other countries over the last 30 years, he said.
One of United Transit's corporate parents sold 12 cars in the 1990s to the Alaska Railroad, SEPTA said.
Well, the Alaska Railroad shouldn't exactly be confused with the R5 Paoli line, nor for that matter, the R6 Norristown. At least when you compare that with the numerous rail cars built by the other three bidders.
Lewis acknowledged United Transit's intensive lobbying effort, and said it had been disclosed in a public filing with SEPTA. Novak's firm gave "good strategic advice and counsel," Lewis said.
"They are local, and we knew we needed local consultants... who could introduce us, especially to SEPTA board members, because we are not known here." Novak did not return a call seeking comment.
The Republican Party controls 10 of the 15 seats on the board by virtue of its political dominance in the Philadelphia suburbs and state legislature.
United Transit also retained Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, Gov. Rendell's former law firm, and hired Al Mezzaroba, president of the Convention Center, to offer advice about doing business in Philadelphia.
Mezzaroba is a former top aide to City Council President Anna C. Verna. He also has a regular halibut- and salmon-fishing partner in Pasquale "Pat" Deon, the SEPTA board chairman.
Deon acknowledged the lobbying effort, but said lobbying efforts were undertaken by all the competing firms. He and other SEPTA board members said they were confident that the problems with the Market-Frankford El cars, purchased in the 1993 contract, would not be repeated by United Transit.
Conveniently, "Don Pasquale" forgot to mention that same same company that built the M-4 El cars, ABB/Adtranz, also had problems with the N-5 cars built for the P&W. Oops...
In any case, that's one version of how the Philadelphia press is spinning this story. That said, one would think that the Daily News would make a big deal out of all the political connections, considering that Daily News reporters and columnists generally go after Republicans with amazing gusto.
Then again, the people of Doylestown must have thought that American Idol loser Justin Guarini would have a far better music career than AI-2 runner-up Clay Aiken, and we all know how that turned out...
The Daily News article written by Erin Einhorn and Myung Oak Kim on that same meeting (SEPTA to OK deal to build rail cars at old Navy Yard) made little mention of the political connections, but instead focused on the 140 jobs that United Transit Systems "promises" to bring to a new facility at the Navy Yard.
The thought of new manufacturing jobs in a city where heavy industry has been in decline has local boosters smiling and singing the praises of the Korean company. But the choice of UTS is raising eyebrows among some industry experts who fear the transit agency is choosing price over quality and taking an unnecessary risk with an unproven company that happens to have the backing of influential political leaders.
Among those supporting UTS are Gov. Rendell and Mayor Street, both of whom cited job creation in their praise of the deal.
The firm also has the backing of politically connected members of the local Korean community and a team of high-powered lobbyists, including state Republican party chairman Alan Novak, former Street administration Chief of Staff Stephanie Franklin-Suber and former SEPTA general manager Jack Leary.
"We are very much suspicious about what they have in their proposal and what is going on behind the scenes," said Jitendra Tomar, of Kawasaki Rail Car, Inc., one of the bidders that did not get the recommendation.
Kawasaki's bid would cost SEPTA $14 million more than the UTS bid, but Kawasaki scored a technical rating that was significantly better than UTS's on the scale SEPTA used to rate the qualifications of its bidders.
While some mention was made of the political connections, the Daily News' slant appears to be that of "We don't care how you do it, just bring more jobs to Philadelphia."
This plays right into the hands of Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D-Pa./Comcast SportsNet) and Emperor Street, two favorites of the Daily News editorial board. Well, at least for Rendell, who is undoubtedly trying to spin this as a job creation thing in order to appeal to voters in 2006.
It just goes to show that even though the Inquirer and Daily News are under the same corporate umbrella (Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc.), it seems that the two papers can occasionally have differing takes of news stories...
(Personal disclosure: I am employed by PNI out of one of the home delivery warehouses in Downingtown, but I obviously have no say in how stories are covered. That said, I have no problem criticizing either paper, should it be necessary.)
MORE SCHUYLKILL VALLEY NEWS
The Norristown Times Herald reported on Friday's meetings between Congressman Jim Gerlach (R-6), SEPTA, BARTA, and PennDOT (aka the Committee to Come Up With a Plan B For Schuylkill Valley)regarding the often controversial Philadelphia-to-Reading rail link. Among some of the suggestions that came out of that meeting (from the article):
Using diesel service on some part or all of the line, at least initially, rather than electrifying the entire system.
Don't electrify the entire Norristown to Reading corridor in the first phase? BRILLIANT! What else have you got?
Sharing tracks with Norfolk Southern rather than running a separate track in the same corridor.
Using the same tracks for commuter rail service and freight rail service, as is common practice virtually everywhere else in the nation? BRILLIANT! What else have you got?
Retaining the higher platforms of traditional commuter rail service rather than the more costly ground levels platforms.
Well, I don't know if higher platforms are less expensive than ground-level platforms, but, moving on...
Aiming, at least initially, for service every 30 to 40 minutes rather than the 15-minute peak-hour service initially proposed.
Reducing headways to fit the actual needs of the corridor? BRILLIANT! Anything else you want to suggest?
Phasing the project either geographically or system-wise, such as first getting all the tracks in place, then constructing the needed rail stations and then purchasing the equipment such as rail cars.
Phase the project in rather than do everything in one shot, thus delaying service even longer? BRILLIANT!
(Yes, I borrowed rather liberally from those annoying Guinness commercials featuring those two idiots from the brewery. No, I am not paying royalties, thank you very much.)
It certainly makes one wonder why it took the powers that be so long to figure this out. Could it be that Gerlach, unlike most of the "rocket scientists" down in Washington and Harrisburg are finally paying attention to how flawed SEPTA's "Metrorail" proposal was?
"We need to re-energize our efforts," Gerlach said. "This project is too important to die."
As an aside, I am not opposed to rail service between Philadelphia and Reading. I never have been and I never will be, as it's too important a corridor to leave languishing while US 422 becomes a virtual parking lot. What I am opposed to was the way that SEPTA botched the entire process in coming to this "Metrorail" proposal, not to mention the ridiculously high $2.2 billion price tag. Just so we're clear on this...
Daily Times transportation writer John M. Roman exprienced first hand the convenience - or lack thereof - that SEPTA offers. Take today's offering in his weekly "Road Watch" column (which is not posted on-line):
Here's one for my "Bumps and Thumps" section:
Why doesn't the SEPTA parking lot ticket machine at the major 69th Street Terminal hub accept one-dollar bills?
Not everyone carries $2 worth of change in their pockets - especially since the ticket machine only accepts nickels, dimes, quarters and (SEPTA) tokens.
It also accepts one-dollar coins, but who the heck ever has one of them handy? I can't remember the last time I ever got a Susan B. Anthony coin in change.
I don't think it would require a major technological innovation to have a maching that accepts dollar bills. Every supermarket's self-service lane has such machines ... and they even provide change.
Friday morning, I parked my car at the lot off Market Street, but luckily I stopped at a Wawa to get two more quarters in change after buying a newspaper [his own, we hope - ed.], which I added to the six quarters I scrounged up around the house.
I noticed the machine doesn't have its date timer set up correctly. [No shock there - ed.] The ticket reciept I got back for parking space No. 42 was dated 2/18/04 and the time recorded was "12:00 AM" although it was Feb. 20, Friday, and I parked about 9:40 a.m.
The expiration time on my ticket read 4:46 p.m. Does that mean I was entitled to 16 hours and 46 minutes of parking time between using the Frankford-Market (sic) El?
SEPTA wasn't able to provide me with any answers Friday [yet another shock - ed.] although I left a message with Media Relations Director Richard Maloney around lunchtime. Late Friday afternoon, press officer Sylvana Hoyos said the guy in charge of the parking lots wasn't available and she would have to get back to my Monday. Stay tuned.
Yo, SEPTA, let's fix this parking lot ticket machine.
Okay, Mr. Roman, here are a few things to understand.
First of all, SEPTA is not bright enough to retrofit it's TVMs at it's Center City Regional Rail stations to accomodate the new $5, $10, or either version of the new $20 bill.
Secondly, it's a computer-based machine. SEPTA is seemingly incapable of maintaining them properly.
Finally, it shouldn't be a shock that the person from SEPTA's Ministry of Mis-Information would call to say that the person who could answer your questions wouldn't be back until Monday. (Apparently, it's the Fearless Leader strategy when it comes to Fridays - leave as early as you can.) Although, another theory is that the person with the answers was actually in the office at the time and needed the weekend to come up with an excuse that you and the rest of the riding public would accept.
Good luck, pal. You'll need it.