State awards copter contract to sole bidder

The state of Maryland has awarded a $72 million contract to the lone bidder to provide six helicopters to begin the replacement of the Maryland State Police emergency medical fleet.

The award to Agusta Aerospace Corp. of Philadelphia is scheduled to come before the Board of Public Works next Wednesday for approval. The Maryland Department of Transportation, which ran the procurement process on behalf of the state police, received no bids other than Agusta's despite seeking offers from four helicopter manufacturers.

The value of the contract could more than double over the next three years because the state also received an option for the purchase of six more aircraft at a cost of $11.7 million each plus an inflation adjustment.

The purchase would begin the transition of Maryland's unique, fully public-operated, statewide medevac service from its existing Dauphin helicopter fleet, which numbered 12 until the September 2008 crash of a rescue helicopter in Southern Maryland reduced it to 11 operable craft. The helicopters in the existing fleet range from 11 to 21 years old.

The O'Malley administration moved forward with the purchase with the approval of the General Assembly, which provided money for new helicopters despite the objections of some members that the fleet replacement program was too expensive and that much of the work of shuttling injured patients to trauma centers could be done by private companies.

"Is it a good idea to buy these helicopters? I have my doubts," said state Sen. John Astle, an Annapolis Democrat and a longtime helicopter pilot. Astle questioned the size of the Agusta AW139 copters, whose 15-person capacity he considers excessive. "It's going to be really expensive to operate."

Astle, along with state Sen. E. J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, raised objections to the fleet replacement program in 2009 but were ultimately overruled by their General Assembly colleagues after the current system received strong support from trauma nurses, emergency room physicians and local elected officials. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. have both written letters to the board supporting the award.

A House of Delegates work group reported in March 2009 that it supported the state police purchase of so-called multimission helicopters — capable of performing both law enforcement and rescue functions — because of the "efficiencies this creates."

Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Department, said the department does not comment on contracts that have not yet been brought before the board. Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, also declined to comment.

But the public works board agenda recounts that state procurement officials invited representatives of four leading helicopter manufacturers — Agusta, American Eurocopter, Bell Helicopter and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. — to discuss the state's requirements and the possible purchase price. According to the agenda, the transportation department said the four companies gave estimates ranging from $14.9 million to $18.3 million per helicopter.

The department said it used the manufacturers' comments in drawing up its request for proposal — the document laying out the state's bid specifications — which was published in June 2009.

However, according to the department, only Agusta submitted a bid. American Eurocopter filed a bid protest in September 2009, contending that the result had been "preordained" by the bid's specifications. According to the agenda, the transportation department denied the protest and the company did not appeal.

Paul Jackson, a spokesman for Sikorsky, said the company's S-76 helicopter didn't meet the state's bid solicitation. "The specifications as they were written excluded our aircraft," he said. Bell Helicopter did not respond to a request for its reason for not bidding.

Astle said he's troubled that only one bid was received.

"It begs the question: If they only had one bidder, why was that?" he said.

Nevertheless, the $11.7 million price tag per helicopter indicates the state had some success in holding the price well below the companies' initial estimates.

The Transportation Department said the state conducted a detailed financial analysis of the Agusta bid and negotiated with the company to bring the price down. According to the agenda, the purchase price was $1.6 million per helicopter below that paid by another state recently for the same aircraft.

Critics, including Astle, have contended that the state could save money by rehabilitating its existing fleet, arguing that the existing helicopters are far from the end of their useful life.

But the administration said an overhaul would not be cost-effective and that the trade-in value of its existing helicopters would drop as the aircraft reached an age of 20 years.

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