- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

ANNAPOLIS | Despite objections from the NAACP and members of the Legislative Black Caucus, the Maryland Board of Public Works approved a $44.8 million contract for an airport shuttle service with a company that has drawn complaints for falling short of past minority participation goals.

The debate over awarding the three-year contract to First Transit Inc. at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has been a contentious one, and the board’s meeting Wednesday was the third time that it had taken the issue up.

The board - Gov. Martin O’Malley, Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot - voted 2-1 to approve the contract, with Mr. Franchot voting against it. All are Democrats.

First Transit of Cincinnati has been operating the shuttle service on emergency spending approved by the board because of delays in bringing the contract to a final vote.

The delays have stemmed from complaints about the company’s failure to reach a 30 percent target goal for minority participation under its previous contract. The target ended up getting reduced to 13 percent, and the state granted a waiver that officials now say shouldn’t have been allowed.

“We have taken steps to ensure that that will not happen again,” Transportation Secretary John Porcari said.

Critics have complained repeatedly that state agencies are neglecting the Maryland Minority Business Enterprise Program, which aims for 25 percent minority participation. The program is written into state law, providing that agencies strive to reach the 25 percent mark.

Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, the president of the Baltimore City branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, urged the board to reject the contract.

“We are about to make a serious mistake if we allow this company to do what they did to us for the last two and a half years, basically slap [the minority program] in the face and say: ‘We’ll do what we want to do.’”

Mr. O’Malley conceded that “this is not a contract that would go into the category of making solid progress.”

However, the governor said his administration is working hard to improve in an area that has proven to be frustratingly difficult to him since he took office 17 months ago. He pointed to more than a dozen transportation contracts at Wednesday’s meeting that exceeded MBE goals as an example.

“We’re working to put together a more rational and open and transparent process here,” Mr. O’Malley said. “I understand your frustration. I feel your frustration. I do believe that we can do better every single day we’re here on every contract.”

First Transit is now exceeding a 28 percent minority participation rate, and he underscored that the state will monitor the company to make sure it stays that way, Mr. Porcari said.

Mr. Porcari said when the project was rebid in October last year, there were four companies that bid on the contract, and First Transit gave the best overall proposal, which included safety and customer service.

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