Congress members call on Maryland to ‘reevaluate’ Purple Line bidder

Two members of Congress have asked Maryland transportation officials to “reevaluate” a firm bidding on a contract to build and operate the light-rail Purple Line because its majority owner once transported prisoners to Nazi death camps during the Holocaust.

Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) wrote to Maryland Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr. on Jan. 27, asking for the review.

The company in question, Keolis, is a member of one of four consortiums recently chosen by Maryland transportation officials to bid on a public-private partnership to design, build, operate, maintain and help finance a 16-mile Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF), which owns 70 percent of Keolis, was paid to transport 76,000 prisoners to Nazi death camps in World War II, according to historians.

State officials have said they expect to choose a private partner on the $2.2-billion transit proposal by early 2015. The partnership likely would be a 35-year contract that could be valued at more than $6-billion, one of the largest contracts ever in Maryland. State officials also are seeking $900-million in federal grants and a low-interest federal loan as part of the public-private plan.

“If awarded, the State of Maryland’s contract with SNCF for the Purple Line may be paid out of the very pockets of taxpayers who the company once willingly transported to the death camps,” the letter said. “While we look forward to the innovative Purple Line, we do not believe that it should be done through the partnership of Keolis as an entity of SNCF until its victims are awarded their long overdue justice.”

The letter asks Smith “to take into consideration the relationship between Keolis and SNCF as it reviews finalists for the Purple Line.”

Keolis officials have said the company, which was founded in the late 1990s, had nothing to do with the Holocaust. SNCF officials have said the French government has paid billions in reparations to Holocaust victims and their families for deportations that occurred under the Nazi-backed Vichy government during World War II.

SNCF’s chairman issued a formal apology to Holocaust victims in 2011.

“I understand their feelings, and I respect their feelings,” ­Alain Leray, president of SNCF America in Rockville, has said of Holocaust survivors. “It’s a highly emotional issue. . . . If it’s a historical issue, let’s deal with it. If it’s a commercial issue, let’s deal with it. But mixing one with the other doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

Keolis first drew scrutiny in the Washington region in 2010, when a Holocaust survivors group protested its winning of an $85 million contract to operate Virginia Railway Express trains, its first U.S. rail contract. Earlier this month, Keolis won a $2.68 billion contract to operate its second U.S. system, Boston’s commuter rail. SNCF has no U.S. rail contracts, Leray said.

A 2011 Maryland law that requires companies bidding on state commuter rail (MARC) contracts to disclose any ties to the Holocaust targeted a Keolis bid to operate two MARC lines. That contract went to a lower bidder.

Last year, Maloney and Ros-Lehtinen introduced legislation that would allow Holocaust victims and their families to seek damages against SNCF in U.S. courts.

 

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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