- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2000

Metro General Manager Richard White will ask the Metro board today to approve open-ended consultant contracts that cost at least $68.9 million, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Times.

The contracts unusual but not illegal, officials say came to light during an ongoing investigation by The Times of Metro's contracting practices. According to the contracts, four consulting firms will be handed all of the transit system's design and engineering work without competitive bidding.

In addition, the costs are only estimates, since Metro will pay the consultants by the hour, plus overhead, rather than paying by the job.

If approved, it would be the first time in Metro's history that contracts cover all major planning and engineering work. Metro traditionally seeks separate bids on each project.

Under the all-inclusive contracts, the four consulting firms would be paid for everything from rail design and engineering for major construction work to procurement of buses.

The contracts have caused concern among Metro managers and board members who question whether this new direction represents the best deal for taxpayers.

"I still can't see why they can't bid them out," said board member Decatur Trotter, a former Maryland state senator. "There has been hesitation on these contracts because many of us are unfamiliar with the technical aspects. "We are taking a closer look at these things."

Mr. Trotter was among the first board members to begin questioning the transit agency's use of high-priced consultants to do work previously done by employees. Mr. Trotter said he had not been told of the proposed contracts, but intends to attend today's meeting.

Gladys Mack, Metro board chairman, said she is comfortable with hiring the four consultants because it will speed the process by eliminating a need for competitive bidding on each project. She said, however, that the board must remain vigilant to avoid cost overruns.

"I have been concerned that they must give us specific accounting so we will be able to see whether these are good estimates and staying within the limits," Mrs. Mack said.

Ray Feldmann, Metro spokesman, said having fewer consultants working on a variety of projects is necessary, since many projects are for repairs and upgrades rather than extensive rail construction. He said that using a group of consultants is more efficient than hiring a consultant for each project.

"We have different needs in the organization now than we had five years ago," Mr. Feldmann said. "We are now heavy into rehab and maintenance, not the heavy construction we had before.

"Frankly, when an escalator breaks down, the passengers don't care who is doing the work. They want to get it up as quickly as possible," he said. "It is up to us to manage that work."

Mr. Feldmann said today's meeting is to outline to the board the scope of the work and estimated costs.

The proposal will be submitted to the board's budget committee. Internal documents show that Mr. White hopes to have board approval by July 27.

But the plan still has some Metro managers concerned that the attempt to expedite the process could prove too costly.

"We don't know if there will be anything saved by doing it this way," said a Metro manager familiar with the contracts. "We have to take a wait-and-see approach to determine if it's the wisest way to spend the taxpayers' money."

Another employee said he could not believe that Metro managers were going to put all major projects in the hands of so few consultants.

The employee, who is involved in the projects, said Metro in the past would get the best qualified consultants at a good price through the regular bidding process.

"Everything we want done goes to the same guys. If we did not have them, we would be going out for [bids]," the employee said. "You got these guys doing everything and it has locked out everybody else."

The documents show that Panagiotis P. "Takis" Salpeas, Metro's assistant general manager for transit systems development, recommended the consultant contracts July 5. Metro was still negotiating hourly rates charged by the consultants and those rates could escalate.

The documents, prepared by Mr. Salpeas' office, indicate the agency has not yet determined the scope of work and that the consultants may begin before thatis defined.

Mr. Salpeas did not recommend that the contract be competitively bid, although he says in the documents that the board is free to seek other consultants through the bidding process.

The proposal is part of a program Metro calls the Integrated Annual Work Program, which was devised by Mr. White and Mr. Salpeas through a series of transactions in which the four consulting firms would be hired on an hourly basis.

The companies are Daniel, Mann, Johnson and Mendenhall/ DeLeuw Cather Joint Venture; Parsons Brinkerhoff Quade and Douglass; Raytheon and Booz-Allen & Hamilton.

Board members were caught off guard when they discovered all of the work was being diverted to those firms without competitive bidding.

They learned that after The Washington Times reported Mr. Salpeas had hired a colleague through a no-bid $100,000 contract that grew to $333,065 in less than a year.

The Times also discovered $25 million paid last year for 108 high-priced consultants including a $53-an-hour clerk and a $168-an-hour engineer. At the same time, Metro had eliminated 100 professional jobs because of a lack of work for the employees.

As a result of the publicity, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater ordered the Federal Transit Administration to audit Metro's contracting process. That audit uncovered problems and criticized procedures.

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