Maryland legislation targeting Purple Line bidder’s ties to Holocaust fails

Legislation that would have prohibited a company from winning a Purple Line light-rail contract until a French railway paid reparations to people it transported during the Holocaust stalled before the Maryland General Assembly session ended Monday.

The legislation would have threatened $900 million in federal construction aid for the 16-mile line planned between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. A top Federal Transit Administration attorney said it couldhave violated federal procurement rules. Maryland officials have said they can’t afford to build the $2.37 billion rail project without significant federal aid.

The bills, which never progressed after committee hearings, also would have complicated U.S.-French talks underway to expand the French government’s Holocaust compensation program to cover Americans, a U.S. official said.

The legislation would have banned a Paris-based company named Keolis from winning a contract to design, build, operate, maintain and help finance a Purple Line until Keolis’s majority owner paid Holocaust reparations. Seventy percent of Keolis is owned by Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF), the government-owned French railway, which transported 76,000 Jews and other prisoners to Nazi death camps.

Keolis is a member of one of four consortiums of private companies recently chosen by the Maryland Department of Transportation to compete for the Purple Line public-private partnership. The contract, which would cover 35 years, has an estimated value of more than $6 billion, making it one of the largest government contracts ever in Maryland. Bids are due in the fall.

Maryland officials have said they hope to begin construction in 2015 and open the line to service in 2020.

Some Holocaust survivors said their tax money shouldn’t go to a contract that would benefit SNCF until the railway paid reparations to all victims. French officials say the government has paid more than $6 billion in reparations to Holocaust victims since 1948, including to those transported on SNCF trains, but that compensation program has not covered many American citizens.

SNCF officials say the railway was forced to transport Nazi prisoners to death camps when it was commandeered by the Germans during World War II. Some Holocaust survivor groups say the railway has not taken full responsibility for its Holocaust ties.

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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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