Maryland bill targets Purple Line bidder’s ties to Holocaust

A bill introduced in the Maryland General Assembly would prohibit one of the firms bidding on the light-rail Purple Line project from winning the contract unless its parent company pays reparations to Holocaust victims transported on its trains.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), would affect Keolis, a rail company whose majority owner is SNCF, the government-owned French railway. Historians say SNCF trains carried nearly 76,000 Jews and other Nazi prisoners to the French-German border on their way to extermination camps during World War II.

Keolis is a member of one of four consortiums recently chosen by the Maryland Department of Transportation 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. The 35-year contract is valued at more than $6 billion, one of the largest ever in the state.

Maryland transit officials have said they hope to choose a private partner on the $2.2 billion project by early 2015 and begin construction the same year.

Under the bill, the state could not enter into a public-private partnership with a company that deported Nazi prisoners unless it pays “any restitution or settlement” to “all identifiable victims of the deportations or to their families.” The bill also applies to companies that are “controlled” or “partially owned” by firms with Holocaust ties, including those owned by a foreign government.

Some Holocaust survivors say it would be unjust to use taxpayer money, including tax revenues from Holocaust survivors living in Maryland, to pay a company involved in deportations to Nazi death camps under inhumane conditions. Similar state legislation passed in 2011 requiring any company involved in such deportations to disclose that history when bidding on Maryland commuter rail (MARC) contracts.

Keolis officials have said the Paris-based company, founded in the late 1990s, had nothing to do with the Holocaust. SNCF owns 70 percent of Keolis, company officials have said.

Alain Leray, president of Rockville-based SNCF America, said SNCF has already disclosed its “tragic World War II past” when it bid unsuccessfully on a MARC contract in 2011. He said he will focus on whether the new bill would be “discriminatory” against SNCF if it is written specifically to target one company.

Leray said French law allows only the government, not the national rail company, to pay reparations for Holocaust deportations. He said the French government has paid more than $6 billion in reparations to Holocaust victims.

Legislation also is pending in Congress that would allow Holocaust survivors to seek damages from SNCF in U.S. courts. Two members of Congress also recently called on Maryland transportation officials to “re-evaluate” any bid involving Keolis.

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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