Airport shuttle contract turns into saga that just won’t end

The city of Atlanta will soon decide if it can resolve an airport shuttle contract that has been held up for nearly four years, getting tangled in everything from accusations of political cronyism to a traffic wreck that injured 17 people.

Ironically, the quagmire over the “shared-ride shuttle” involves a contract that some say isn’t profitable now and may not be in the future.

But the dispute shows how fierce contract battles at the world’s busiest airport can get when politics, money and stiff competition all combine.

“It’s been an ongoing saga,” said Atlanta city council member Felicia Moore, who chairs the council’s transportation committee. “It’s just been one delay after another. … Now we’re at the finish line with it, and there are other concerns that have come up.”

The contract in question calls for a company to operate shuttles between Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the central business district of Atlanta, namely downtown, Midtown and Buckhead. The city gets a revenue cut from the business, but received only about $33,000 last year from the primary operator, The Atlanta Airport Shuttle Service, or TAASS.

For the travelers who use them, the shuttles may be their first taste of Atlanta and one of the last things they experience before leaving the city.

Last year, some 56,000 travelers depended on the shuttles operated by TAASS to get to or from the airport — paying $16.50 one-way from downtown to the airport, for example.

But TAASS’ business has been shrinking for years. Yet, in the last two months even more businesses have joined the fight over the contract. Entering the brouhaha are shuttle operators all over metro Atlanta who make their living carrying passengers to and from the airport every day.

Most did not even bid on the contract. They’re concerned that a well-known international firm – SuperShuttle – aims to enter Atlanta by winning this contract and then eventually taking over a much broader swath of the market.

But the problems with the contract began long before SuperShuttle entered the scene. It all started with the shutdown of the city’s contractor Atlanta Link in 2010.

Then when the airport had to quickly find an interim operator, there was a no-bid selection of A-National Limousine. Its owner, Darrell Anderson, is an associate of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed who has invested in property with the mayor.

Next, an airport study found the process to select a permanent contractor raised conflicts of interest due to another airport contract A-National already holds.

And just when it appeared those issues had been addressed and the contract was ready to be awarded to local business MTI Limo and Shuttle Services, a much-publicized crash between an MTI airport shuttle and a tractor-trailer injured the shuttle driver and 16 passengers — temporarily costing MTI its state permits.

All in all, the city has tried three times in four years to get through a contracting process for a new operator. Over the last few years, some have criticized the city over the perpetually-unresolved contract.

Yet now, a coalition of shuttle companies are arguing the latest process is flawed and that the city needs to start all over again — on a fourth try.

In this latest controversy, local shuttle operators argue the city’s process of selecting a contractor based on the highest bid puts small, local businesses at a disadvantage versus larger national firms with bigger bank accounts.

With SuperShuttle poised to win the contract, local shuttle operators said the competitive bidding process “creates a David vs. Goliath kind of opportunity that all but crushes or eliminates from contention the local small businesses,” said Vic Bolton, a spokesman for the local operators.

The competitive bidding process has some advantages — it is viewed as a less subjective process, and gives companies an incentive to offer the city the highest dollar amount possible, which can generate more revenue for the city.

But, Bolton said, once bidders are pre-qualified, “he with the biggest checkbook wins.”

Local operators believe a different process — to evaluate competing proposals based on a wider variety of factors — provides a better chance for local companies.

“They’re absolutely right,” said interim airport manager Miguel Southwell, because the local operators “can’t have the big economies of scale of the national companies.”

But once the city has started a particular contracting process, Southwell said, “we have a higher obligation to see that process through, as long as everybody has acted in good faith.”

Airport officials emphasized that the contract does require 36 percent minority participation, which is expected to include a locally-owned small business as a partner with SuperShuttle.

The process “provides an equal opportunity for all businesses, including small and minority-owned businesses,” Southwell said in a written statement.

Airport officials also said there were not the same protests when the city first switched to the current competitive bidding process, but only after SuperShuttle submitted the highest bid.

The other shuttle operators worry, however, that SuperShuttle could eventually seek permits to operate shuttles all over metro Atlanta, pushing out smaller operators.

SuperShuttle regional vice president Thomas Gahan said expanding beyond Atlanta’s central business district is “something that could be in the future, but that’s nothing that we’re considering at this point.”

The Atlanta City Council transportation committee expects the procurement department and airport will recommend awarding the contract to SuperShuttle because it bid the most. The committee will likely take up the matter after returning from recess late this month.

Long-time council and transportation committee member C.T. Martin said the shared-ride shuttle contract is “not a profit-making scenario,” targeting the market in between the convenience of cabs or limos and the affordability of MARTA at $2.50 a ride. And with new competition from mobile app-driven ride-share services like Uber and Lyft, “it’s going to be even worse.” That could prompt the winning bidder to raise concerns about contract terms down the road, he said.

Southwell, the airport manager, is more optimistic.

“The shared-ride shuttle can make money,” he said. “Shared-ride shuttles operate profitably across the country.”

SuperShuttle, which operates in more than 40 airports using its hallmark blue vans, submitted a bid of $455,000 for Hartsfield-Jackson’s shared-ride shuttle contract. That was about three times the minimum bid and $184,000 more than the second-highest bid.

Gahan said SuperShuttle can operate profitably with its bid amount. It typically charges 50 or 60 percent of a taxi fare, he said. Cab fare for a passenger going from the Atlanta airport to the central business district ranges from roughly $30 to $40.

“Atlanta is a market that we should be in,” he said.

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