Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade is almost ready to buy its first electric buses. Enter the lobbyists

A promotional image of an electric bus sold by Proterra, a firm in talks with Miami-Dade County to sell it dozens of the battery-powered vehicles. The contract is the subject of an escalating fight with a competitor.
A promotional image of an electric bus sold by Proterra, a firm in talks with Miami-Dade County to sell it dozens of the battery-powered vehicles. The contract is the subject of an escalating fight with a competitor.

Miami-Dade County wants to create a new fleet of modern electric buses, but the act of purchasing the quiet and smog-free vehicles seems to be skidding into an old-fashioned procurement fight.

County administrators have recommended buying nearly three dozen 40-foot electric buses from Proterra, a California company that has sold or leased electric buses to governments across the country, including in Washington, D.C. and New York City. With the estimated $23 million deal awaiting a final sign-off from Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a losing bidder is urging Miami-Dade to throw out the recommendation and buy its vehicles instead.

“We are submitting this letter to, again, express concern regarding the County’s decision to engage in negotiations with Proterra,” lobbyist Alexander Heckler wrote Gimenez on June 20 on behalf of New Flyer, a bus maker based in St. Cloud, Minn., that also bid on the electric-bus contract. “The flaws in Proterra’s buses will not only delay their delivery, but it will also expose the County to significant risks.”

Proterra calls the allegations misleading and baseless, since Proterra has already deployed the same kind of battery-powered buses around the county. CEO Ryan Popple said New Flyer’s lobbying team is trying to penalize Proterra for updating its bus design to reflect improvements in an emerging technology.

“New Flyer’s attorney is trying to use innovation as a negative,” Popple said Saturday in response to a statement Heckler released for this article. “We invest in engineering, not lobbyists.”

Derailing the electric-bus contract could be a boon to New Flyer, which already sells the county diesel buses and is under contract to replace about a third of the county’s bus fleet with vehicles powered by natural gas. Should Miami-Dade decide buying electric buses looks too daunting, New Flyer would be well positioned to provide replacements for an 800-bus fleet already suffering delays from having vehicles that are too old to still be in service.

“We believe New Flyer’s letter writing campaign under the County’s cone of silence rules is an abuse of the County’s process,” Proterra lobbyist Joseph Goldstein wrote Gimenez on June 21. “Miami-Dade has waited long enough to enjoy the public health benefits, and the clean, quiet public transportation experience enjoyed in major cities across the country that have deployed Proterra’s zero-emission buses.”

Federal data released in 2016 identified Miami-Dade as having the least reliable bus system in the country, with extensive breakdowns. A 2018 analysis by the Miami-based Transit Alliance found the number of “ghost buses” — vehicles scheduled to arrive at a stop but that don’t, usually because of mechanical issues — had doubled, to about 700 per month. Miami-Dade launched the electric-bus bidding in late 2016 as a pilot program to see how the battery-powered vehicles fared when put into service countywide. One big concern: how does the air-conditioning system fare on a battery-powered bus deal with Miami heat?

“We have a desire to check out electric buses, because they’re quiet and environmentally friendly,” said Alice Bravo, Gimenez’s transit director. “We do want to continue modernizing our fleet.”

If not resolved quickly, the fight over buying 33 electric buses could lead to the latest blow-up in Miami-Dade’s procurement system, which is notorious for chronic delays and decisions stalled for years as lobbyists argue against a competitor’s client winning a contract.

Miami-Dade is still wrangling over replacing four fire rescue helicopters that were supposed to be sold in 2014. Metrorail passengers have been dealing with extensive delays and breakdowns thanks to trains delivered during the Reagan administration. The county’s first replacement train finally arrived late last year from a bidding system that was launched in 2009 and then plagued by protests and contracting fights that led to years of delays.

“Miami-Dade County has a reputation among people who are suppliers that it’s a difficult place to do business,” said Charles Dusseau, a former county commissioner in the late 1980s and early 1990s who went on to serve as secretary of commerce under Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles.

“There are a lot of companies that come to Miami-Dade County that have never had to hire a lobbyist before,” Dusseau said. “When they come to Miami-Dade County, they find they do have to hire one.”

Contracting rules bar companies from talking directly to decision makers during the bidding process, but written correspondence is allowed. Letters and emails provided by the county show a contentious year of back-and-forth as New Flyer tries to put the brakes on Miami-Dade awarding its first electric-bus contract to Proterra. The company counts former vice president Al Gore as a top investor and says it has delivered roughly 200 battery-powered vehicles to customers.

New Flyer is one of the world’s leading bus sellers. Last year it began selling the county new low-emission buses powered by compressed natural gas. Its primary local lobbying firm, Llorente & Heckler, has extensive political ties. Managing partner Marcelo Llorente served as chairman of Gimenez’s 2016 reelection campaign and Jesse Manzano-Plaza, a partner in the affiliated firm called LSN Partners, was Gimenez’s campaign manager.

Gimenez has not responded to the dueling letters, or issued his recommendation on the electric-bus contract. His recommendation eventually goes to the 13-member County Commission for final approval of the contract.

In May 2017, a county selection committee of transit and purchasing administrators in the Gimenez administration recommended awarding Proterra the electric-bus contract. New Flyer was the runner up, and the panel concluded Proterra could charge its battery-powered buses quicker and the vehicles could travel farther without returning to a charging station.

While both companies bid roughly the same start-up price — about $75 million for up to 75 buses, including multiple charging stations and other infrastructure — the selection panel concluded Proterra buses would be cheaper to maintain.

“Overall,” the committee’s chairperson, Jesus Lee, a county procurement officer wrote on May 16, 2017, “Proterra’s proposal offers the best life cycle cost.”

New Flyer began its demands for reconsideration 10 days after Lee delivered his recommendation, warning Proterra’s proposed electric bus for Miami-Dade wasn’t properly tested. It claimed that as Proterra altered the proposed vehicle’s design to respond to New Flyer’s objections to weight capacity and battery life, the model morphed into a vehicle so different that it violated the county’s prohibition against altering bids.

“Not only do these major untested changes impose high risk to the County, but [they] violate Florida procurement laws,” Heckler said in a statement. “New Flyer has proven over many years to be a trusted and reliable manufacturer for the County.”

Proterra countered that versions of the buses it wants to sell Miami-Dade are already in service in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., and New York, and that Chicago just picked the model over a New Flyer option after its own procurement process.

At a February hearing in Miami to address New Flyer’s allegations, Popple told the selection committee that the company has been updating its proposed design to address regulatory issues and Miami-Dade’s unique requests for battery-powered buses, and that the modifications are bound to continue once a contract is signed.

“By the time we ship this vehicle, the vehicle for Miami-Dade will be taking advantage of probably 18 months of innovation that was in the works and planned,” he said, according to a transcript. “This is a very rapidly moving technology.”

After the Feb. 16 hearing, the Gimenez administration opted to continue negotiations with Proterra for a final contract. With those talks in the final stages, Heckler said Friday his firm thought it appropriate to write directly to Gimenez with the concerns, given that he has final say on the recommendation.

“We waited until this was properly before the mayor and his senior staff,” Heckler said.

This post was updated to correct the location of the New Flyer headquarters and the number of Proterra buses on the road.

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