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The MTA's rail-car dilemma

Given the current contractor's past performance, the MTA should open bidding for its new light-rail cars.

July 23, 2009

Los Angeles' light-rail network needs new passenger cars, but the decision on a $300-million contract option to build them has been weighed down by political baggage -- so much so that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board has put it off three times this year. With the item once again on the agenda today, there's reason to worry that all the spin and lobbying will overshadow the central question before the board: Can the contractor, the Italian company AnsaldoBreda, build the cars the MTA needs? Or will the agency be saddled with inferior cars, unnecessary operating expenses and endless disputes?

Based solely on past performance, AnsaldoBreda is a terrible choice. The company has done a poor job so far on a previous MTA contract to build 50 rail cars; the cars delivered to date are 5,000 to 6,000 pounds overweight, and some were three years late. AnsaldoBreda blames the MTA's change orders for the problems, and the two sides continue to squabble over the company's liability.

Yet AnsaldoBreda has made lavish promises to build a new factory in Los Angeles, which has won it a powerful base of political support. The factory would anchor a clean-technology business corridor whose creation is a high priority of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's, and by promising to staff it with union workers, AnsaldoBreda has won the backing of local labor groups.

We're as charmed as anybody by the prospect of hundreds of new, good-paying jobs for Los Angeles at a time when the city is suffering from high unemployment, and thrilled with AnsaldoBreda's blueprints for an energy-efficient, solar-powered plant. But there are good reasons why both the former chief of the MTA and the current one have recommended putting the brakes on the company's contract option to build an additional 100 cars.

Overweight rail cars are a serious problem for the MTA. They put added stress on bridges, rails and other infrastructure, leading to increased maintenance costs; it also takes more electricity to power them down the tracks. No one has assessed the added long-term costs to the agency if it accepts the overweight cars, but it could be in the tens of millions.

We think the public interest would be best served by opening the contract to bidding. AnsaldoBreda could be among the bidders, and its disappointing past performance isn't necessarily an indicator of the future. But if bidders with better track records make competitive offers, the agency and the rail-riding public might be better off with another contractor.

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