A growing dispute between Los Angeles transit officials and a light rail car manufacturer is showing how hard it can be to stimulate a sagging economy even when money is available.
Despite $40 billion for transportation spending approved by county voters in November and new federal support for public works programs, staff officials at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority, known as Metro, say they plan to open bidding on 100 new light rail cars they were considering buying from AnsaldoBreda, an Italian company.
As a sometime West Coaster, I've always been confused why a state with such strong economic ties to the Pacific Rim would look to Europe for major infrastructure items. Japan is far more accessible for large items like rolling stock, both for whole units and for components, and there is strong connection between the West and the Far East. However, both San Francisco's MUNI and Los Angeles' Metro have both reached out to AnsaldoBreda for their next generation streetcars, and it seems now as if Los Angeles is looking at Siemens as well.
Naturally, Breda officials are far from happy:
...Breda executives counter that the delays were caused by Metro’s change orders and that the decision to open bidding was influenced by a Metro official whose son works for Siemens.
Breda executives also say Metro’s decision will end plans for building the company’s new American headquarters as well as a manufacturing plant in South Los Angeles. Breda, which assembles light rail cars in Pittsburg, Calif., has a pending deal with a contractor to build the new facility.
Breda is also making a point of Metro change orders for the cars as a factor in the costs. Having lived through MUNI's travails getting their Breda cars on the streets I can see their point: the design was too broad for most of the boarding platforms, and had to be narrowed during construction to fit San Francisco's needs. This pushed back their deployment a couple years. While Metro may be right that the cars are more expensive than forecast, the cost additions are no doubt due at least in part to modifications they requested.
Metro's officials are saying they just want the best bang for taxpayer buck, and are claiming ignorance of the Breda plant proposal until after their decision to reopen bidding. Breda's claims, though, that the company is being shut out, are hardly unconvincing:
Breda’s vice president of operations, Francisco Cantatore, said Mr. Cannell called the day after receiving the letter to tell Breda it has “no chance” of getting the new contract.
“He was very upset,” Mr. Cantatore said in an interview. “He said we shouldn’t even bother trying anymore.”
While I sympathise with public authorities looking to maximise their investments, knowing something about such processes makes me think Breda is likely right that something more is going on here. Snubbing one of the premier public transit manufacturers - particularly one poised to inject capital and employment into the local market - as L.A. appears to be doing is not good policy, either. Besides, where else would L.A. look for competition - Boeing?