A blue-ribbon panel has decided that a Tennessee firm -- the veritable dark horse in a hotly contested race -- is the best choice to receive a lucrative contract to build and operate Maryland's automobile exhaust monitoring stations.
The committee's recommendation, which was announced yesterday, provides an ironic twist to the politically charged procurement. The panel's preferred contractor, MARTA Technologies Inc. of Nashville, had not even hired a lobbyist in Annapolis, but now appears likely to win a $97 million contract.
The recommendation will be presented to the Board of Public Works Wednesday. It will be up to the board, chaired by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, to decide whether MARTA gets the nod.
The decision brings Maryland motorists one step closer to a tougher Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program featuring more sophisticated pollution tests, higher fees and potentially more expensive repairs -- up to $450 for cars that fail.
City and suburban drivers are already required to have their car exhaust systems checked every two years, but, beginning in 1995, six rural counties will be included in the federally mandated program. The effort is intended to cut harmful tailpipe emissions that have been a chief reason why Baltimore has some of the nation's worst smog.
"Our job was to make sure the procurement process was fair, and it has been," said Mark P. Keener, a Baltimore lawyer and the blue-ribbon committee's chair. "It's not been an easy process. We couldn't take anything for granted."
Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, yesterday renewed charges that he and other black lawmakers have made since last fall -- that the incumbent contractor, Envirotest Systems Corp. of Bethesda, has been treated unfairly.
Chester Davenport, the company's chairman and chief executive officer, is black, and Mr. Rawlings said that the emissions contract should have been the first major Maryland Department of Transportation contract awarded to a black-run firm.
"There's no reason a Maryland company that is minority-controlled and currently has the contract and is the largest emissions testing company in the world can't get this contract," Mr. Rawlings said.
A written statement from Envirotest said the Maryland contract was "less attractive" than pending contracts in other states and its loss would not "affect our long-term growth plans."
The decision is a blow to Systems Control Inc., the Sunnyvale, Calif., firm that held the Maryland emissions inspection contract before selling its assets to Envirotest last year.
The company spent a considerable sum hiring top Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, hoping he could do for them what he did for GTECH Corp., the firm that won the state's lottery computer contract three years ago under similar circumstances.
Mr. Bereano said yesterday that he was disappointed with the outcome of the committee's deliberations, but he called the process fair.
"The Envirotest people are sore losers," said Mr. Bereano, whose client has been sued by Envirotest over an emissions contract in Maine. MARTA's bid was not the least expensive considered by the seven-member panel, nor was it the highest-rated on the technical scale. Instead, it scored well on both measures, besting three competitors.
Low-bid honors went to Envirotest. The company proposed spending $39.9 million to build the stations and about $11 million each year to run them.
MARTA's proposal would cost significantly more to create the stations, $48 million, but less to run them, $9.8 million a year.
Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and a minority firm, Essex Construction, would build MARTA's stations by the end of next year. Whiting-Turner head Willard Hackerman is a longtime Schaefer ally.
Envirotest lost out in a technical evaluation.
A committee of staffers from the state transportation department and the Maryland Department of the Environment looked at such things as where the stations would be located, the quality of their equipment and how they would be managed or expanded in the future.
Of a possible 925 points, Envirotest received the lowest technical score, 670.
Systems Control came in third at 728 and MARTA was second at 746. A fourth competitor, partners Environmental Systems Products Inc. of East Grandby, Conn., and Gordon Darby Systems of Louisville, Ky., scored tops at 755. But their price was higher than MARTA's.
Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said the fact that the committee's decision avoids the political fallout that might result from awarding the contract to Envirotest or Systems Control is a "happy coincidence."
MARTA, a unit of Ohio-based Allen Group Inc., operates only one emissions testing program, in Central Florida.
MARTA's proposal would create 19 new emissions testing stations, including two in Baltimore, one in Baltimore County, one in Howard County, two in Anne Arundel County, one in Carroll County and one in Harford County.