Tuesday, January 13, 2009
CONGRESSMAN JOHN LUIGI MICA PUSHED EARMARKS FOR COLORADO RAILCAR, WHICH IS NOW OUT OF BUSINESS
Commuter Rail Falters Again As Supplier Fails
By LINDSAY PETERSON
When Florida Department of Transportation officials chose a Colorado company early last year to build 10 railcars for its new Orlando commuter system, they knew the company was in financial trouble.
Nevertheless, the department moved forward with the $45 million contract, and is having to scramble now that Colorado Railcar went out of business at the end of the year. The state had to rewrite the railcar proposal to get new companies to bid.
The last-minute change is one more stumble in the state's controversial efforts to bring commuter rail to Orlando. Last May, state lawmakers rejected an agreement with CSX Transportation, the company planning to sell tracks to the state for the $1.2 billion, 61-mile system. The agreement would have freed CSX from responsibility if one of its trains caused a commuter accident while using the tracks.
State DOT officials are working on getting the CSX track purchase approved this year. They said they didn't realize how serious Colorado Railcar's problems were until October, when the company failed to provide the performance bond the state required.
The state originally advertised the railcar bid invitation in February. It was so narrowly written that Colorado Railcar was the only company that qualified. In a Tampa Tribune story about the purchase, state officials said the company produced precisely the kind of railcar it wanted for the Orlando system. It's a fuel-efficient vehicle that combines the engine and seating in one unit but is also sturdy enough to withstand a collision with a freight train. The revised bid is for the more traditional locomotive-hauled train.
One of Colorado Railcar's proponents is U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, also a major supporter of the Orlando commuter rail system. Mica helped Florida get federal grants in 2003 and 2004 to buy six Colorado Railcar vehicles for South Florida's commuter rail system - with plans that the railcars be moved to Orlando later. They cost $20 million, which included money from the state.
Florida is still waiting for one of its six cars, said Bonnie Arnold, of South Florida's TriRail. "At last report, it was in Texas, on its way to us." But it's unfinished. It still needs interior modifications, including electrical work, she said.
Arnold is also concerned about how the specially built cars will be maintained, with the company out of business. She said five Colorado Railcar maintenance workers based in South Florida will likely be kept on as employees either of TriRail or the state DOT.
Mica defended his support for Colorado Railcar in an earlier Tribune story, saying it had created an innovative fuel-efficient vehicle. He knew the company was having business problems but didn't know the details, he said.
The company's founder, Tom Rader, gave Mica's political campaigns a total of $3,000 in 2004 and 2005. Mica said the contributions had nothing to do with his support for the company.
Florida's DOT was the first transportation agency to buy commuter rail vehicles from Colorado Railcar. A Portland, Ore., agency, TriMet, followed with a $17 million order for four cars. But it learned in mid-2007 that the company was behind schedule and having trouble paying suppliers, said Tuck Wilson, TriMet's special counsel managing the project.
In early 2008 problems at Colorado Railcar were so bad, TriMet took over the company's finances to ensure the completion of its order. Wilson said he notified Florida officials and asked whether they wanted to join the receivership, but the state declined.
TriMet ended up getting all its railcars, but it cost the agency an additional $5.5 million.