Reporting a watchdog transportation story

“I don’t know anything about such a deal’’ subsequently morphed into “A contract agreement was never reached so why is this a story?’’

Those were among the initial responses from spokespersons for the Chicago Transit Authority and the Emanuel administration when fellow Tribune reporter David Kidwell and I started asking questions last month based on information we received about the embattled manufacturer of the CTA’s new rail cars.

Yes, Bombardier Transportation, the company that was forced to recall 54 rail cars it already built and delivered to the CTA and stop production on about 650 other cars because it was caught by CTA inspectors installing defective rail car wheel assembly parts that were made in China. The Tribune reported that development exclusively on March 8.

Our tipsters then told us the CTA was engaged in backroom negotiations with Bombardier aimed at reaching a $300 million, no-bid contract to build a South Side rail car repair facility on property owned by the transit agency and the city.

Under the deal, the city and CTA would give the land to Bombardier for as little as $1 a year, Bombardier would build and operate the repair shop and the CTA would reciprocate by paying Bombardier the $300 million to perform mid-life overhauls on about 250 of the transit agency’s 1990s-era 3200 Series rail cars. Side-deals were also built into the negotiations, including the prospect for Bombardier to attract other railroad customers to its repair facility.

Possibly nothing wrong with the end result, which would have created local jobs and investment, except that the exact same benefits of a public-private partnership might have been achieved if the CTA and City Hall conducted an open competitive-bidding process.

The CTA and City Hall eventually answered many, but not all, of our questions. The Tribune disclosed the no-bid repair project in Thursday’s editions, reporting that the deal was formally killed last month, about the same time that the newspaper revealed the problem with the bad parts.

CTA riders can look forward to the first of the new Bombardier rail cars returning to service in May. But something tells us the ride is not over.

-- Jon Hilkevitch

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