When history comes back to haunt you

Senate Bill 754 and House Bill 1326: their mundane nomenclature disguises an issue of considerable gravity.

Introduced in Maryland’s General Assembly in late January and early February, respectively, the bills may create a new risk category for P3s, which we might term “historical risk”. At the least, their passage would make the state’s Purple Line P3 ineligible for federal funding, possibly jeopardising the project altogether.

The bills were drafted because Keolis, a company that is 70 percent-owned by the French state railway company SNCF, was one of the companies shortlisted in January for the 16-mile light rail line scheme.

‘Paid per head’

According to Leo Bretholtz, a 93-year old Holocaust survivor who started a petition leading to the introduction of the two bills, SNCF was not – contrary to what the company claims – an unwilling participant in the transportation of 76,000 victims to death camps during the Second World War. The SNCF website says the railway system was under Nazi control at the time. But according to Bretholz and others, SNCF was paid per head and per kilometer for the people it helped transport to the camps.

During a hearing held on March 10 by the Ways and Means Committee, Delegate Kirill Reznik, who along with another 18 delegates co-sponsored the House bill, said he was in possession of an invoice SNCF issued for said transportation.

What’s more, the French company had allegedly acknowledged its role in the deportations by providing reparations to Holocaust victims in France and other European countries.

The proposed legislation in the state general assembly sought to do the same for Holocaust survivors in Maryland, by requiring companies bidding for P3 projects to disclose their involvement in deportations during that time and to compensate victims and/or their families if they hadn’t done so already.

Similar legislation already exists in the state. Maryland State Finance and Procurement Article sections 12-501 through 12-511 require any entity bidding for the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) rail service operation and maintenance contract to disclose any information regarding Holocaust deportations.

On March 13, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) expressed concern – as it had in the case of the 2011 legislation – that if either Senate Bill 754 or House Bill 1326 were to be enacted, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) would not be able “to comply with federal full and open competition requirements,” which could result in the loss of federal funds of up to $900 million for the $2.2 billion Purple Line project.

While the MTA worked around the FTA’s concerns in the case of MARC by segregating funding for certain operation and maintenance activities, this time the entire Purple Line project could be jeopardised if it did not receive federal funding.

“This is not about the Purple Line project,” Reznik emphasised during the March 10 hearing. “I emphatically support the construction and operation of the Purple Line and I sincerely hope to ride it in my lifetime,” he said.

“It needs to be built but we cannot have this company operating the Purple Line without having them acknowledge their responsibility and close the wounds that they have caused,” he said.

In speaking with his office however, one of Reznik’s staff told Infrastructure Investor that the bills were probably not moving forward, declining to comment further.

It was unclear whether the passing of Bretholz – he died in his sleep on March 8, two days before he was set to testify at the hearing – contributed to the bills’ loss of momentum.