“Baltimore’s French Connection” a Baltimore Brew Special Report.
On June 7th, an unfamiliar animal began lumbering up St Paul Street. It was the sleek, gaudy, green-and-purple and free-of-charge hybrid Charm City Circulator, opening up a long-awaited free connection for commuters from Federal Hill to Penn Station.
In the city’s June 7th press release Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Transportation Director Alfred Foxx figure prominently – as they do on the sides of buses. Plenty of credit also goes to Sheila Dixon, who cut the ribbon on the initial Orange Line of the Circulator on January 14th, 2009.
One name goes entirely unmentioned in that release, although it’s squeezed in at the bottom of the webpage, and visible on the busses themselves: Veolia. It’s a distinctive logo that has probably planted itself in the subconscious of most Baltimore commuters. They should look twice.
That’s because Veolia is the name of the company that actually designed the webpage. Veolia is the company that worked with the city to design the routes. Veolia is the company that has been contracted to operate the system for the next five years, at a total cost of $40 million. And finally, it helped a cash-strapped city by financing $6.9 million of the $12 million purchase charge for the 21-bus Design Line fleet.
Veolia is a big deal in this city, and it’s going to get bigger.
Outsiders who are here to stay
For Baltimore, outsourcing our most distinctive commodities is a fact of life. Our signature beer, National Bohemian, is brewed by Pabst in North Carolina. Our steel industry – what’s left of it – is now owned by a Russian company, Severstal. The Baltimore Sun, meanwhile, is in the hands of the Chicago-based Tribune Co. And now Arkansas-based multi-national behemoth Wal-Mart may be coming to Baltimore and threatening the gift shops on “The Avenue.” (Watch out, Wal-Mart, you’re messing with Hampden!)
But when the Veolia logo is slapped on the side of the Charm City Circulator, however, it’s not just another foreign company trying to squeeze additional cash out of a defunct industry. Our city – and cities across the country — are outsourcing operation of our water, energy, and transportation infrastructure to Veolia.
But you won’t find that name on any billboards or football stadiums. For a massive company – its total pool of employees could fill about half of the city of Baltimore – Veolia keeps a low profile. It’s not in the business of branding. It’s in the business of running things.
Infrastructure outsourcing: a trend to bank on
Veolia’s role may get played down on press releases, but Veolia itself isn’t at all coy about its reach. Veolia Transportation – as its website boasts – is this country’s leading provider of ground transportation services in the North American continent. Veolia Transportation North America, with about 20,000 employees, has, over the last decade, taken over operations of bus, rail, taxi, shuttle and para-transit systems in over 120 locations in North America.
Among other shuttle and taxi services it owns across the country are Pittsburgh Transportation Group, Kansas City Transportation Group, ATC, and ShuttlePort Holdings, LLC. In Boston, Veolia operates and maintains the 500 train Massachussets Bay commuter rail. The Metrolink, Southern California’s 7-line commuter rail, is operated by Veolia. In South Florida, it operates the Tri-Rail commuter line. It has major bus contracts with the cities of Las Vegas, San Diego, Denver, Phoenix, and Tucson.
Veolia Transportation North America is a growing sector of Veolia Transit, with 78,000 employees, located in Paris France. That is a sector of Veolia Environnement, a French-based multinational conglomerate – with over 350,000 employees – and which in 2008 reported $50 billion revenue in 2008 by contracting operation of water, energy, waste, and transportation infrastructure around the globe.
It is the largest operator of district cooling systems in the continental U.S.: Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Portland, Kansas City, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Trenton, Grand Rapids, Tulsa, and Chicago all have steam systems operated by Veolia. Veolia Water, meanwhile, is the leading water services provider in the U.S., and manages over 600 communities, including, among others, the operation and management of the Indianapolis water supply.
Internationally, the network is more complex and spread across Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South Africa. Whether it’s a desalination plant in Australia and Israel, Dublin’s light rail system, or the water and wastewater services of Ridyadh, Saudi Arabia, it has a large reach which, as infrastructures break down, and water sources dry out, will become larger.
Veolia didn’t come to Baltimore, as some have, to squeeze money out of a few faltering industries. Nor did it come here to invest in new industries. Veolia Environnement makes its profits through private operation of public infrastructure. As long as it gets contracts – either in energy, or transportation, or water, or waste treatment — it makes money; the more it expands, the more contracts it wins. Simply enough, Veolia has come here because it hopes to stay.
Cities like Baltimore are accepting companies like Veolia with open arms. In an era where many American states – Maryland among them – are feeling the budget crunch, Veolia is stepping in with experience, management and personnel (many of them drawn from the fractured, cash-strapped American transit industry) to coordinate and develop operation of the water, transportation, waste treatment, and similar infrastructures.
By simply standing outside Penn Station, with a sharp eye, one gets a brief picture of where Veolia stands today.
The taxicabs snaking around the station are Yellow Cabs. Since 2001, when Veolia purchased Yellow Cab, their 600-cab fleet has been owned and operated by Veolia Transportation. What casual observers might mistake as Yellow Cab’s primary competitor – Checker Cab – is also owned and operated by Veolia. The same goes for Sun Cab, and, in Baltimore County, Jimmy’s Cab.
The shuttle buses that stop alongside Penn Station – taking students, faculty, and people who look like students from Hopkins Hospital to the Charles Village campus – are also run by Veolia Transportation on Demand. The Hopkins Shuttle has been managed by Veolia for about a decade. The Orioles shuttle is owned and operated by Veolia. The Super Shuttle Service is owned by Veolia since 2006, and operates in 34 different cities, Baltimore included.
If you’re disabled and use city services for transportation, you’ll probably be using Veolia. Veolia operates the city’s 200 vehicle, 300 employee paratransit fleet, for Baltimore City, Baltimore Health Department, and the MTA.
TOMORROW: Find out why Veolia’s reach goes far beyond what you might see outside Penn Station.