Another deal catches EC's attention

ANOTHER closely-watched government tender in Slovakia has now caught flak from Brussels. The multi-billion-crown tender to develop a nationwide electronic road-toll collection system had already suffered two failed launches, protests by three disgruntled bidders, more than a dozen complaints filed with Slovakia’s procurement authority, and two inquiries by the European Commission, as well as protests by truckers when the system began operating on January 1.

ANOTHER closely-watched government tender in Slovakia has now caught flak from Brussels. The multi-billion-crown tender to develop a nationwide electronic road-toll collection system had already suffered two failed launches, protests by three disgruntled bidders, more than a dozen complaints filed with Slovakia’s procurement authority, and two inquiries by the European
Commission, as well as protests by truckers when the system began operating on January 1.

Now Brussels is questioning whether the winner of the tender, to build the system covering 2,435 kilometres of Slovakia’s highways and then operate it for 13 years, which had submitted the highest bid, enjoyed an unfair advantage when, at least one of the bidders was eliminated from the competition. Slovakia might also have acted in a discriminatory manner towards this bidder when it excluded its bid due to what the procurer called an unusually low price, according to the letter from the European Commission published by the Sme daily on its website on April 14.

The letter dated March 18 also states that the European Commission has discovered through additional complaints that the contractual conditions had been changed to favour the selected operator of the toll-collection system compared to the requirements of the original tender. According to the EC, these changed conditions included: the installation of an alternative way of toll collection simultaneously with the electronic toll collection; making expenses linked to the return of deposits for vehicles’ on-board units the responsibility of transporters; and having changed the bearing of costs linked to transactions with fleet-cards.

“Even if in practice there might be some additional tuning of conditions needed in order to face some unpredictable circumstances, no substantial changes of the public order are in this connection acceptable, because these change the original contractual balance and might bring the winning bidder an unjustified advantage,” the letter suggests.

The commission’s letter suggests that substantial changes to the public order during its subsequent fulfilment might require a new order and thus a new tender.

Slovakia – specifically Transport Minister Ľubomír Vážny – has one month to respond to the EC letter and submit evidence that the winner was not given unfair advantages by the changed conditions after the launch of the tender.

“We are in the process of preparing a response to the letter from the European Commission,” said the spokesman of the Transport Ministry, Stanislav Jurikovič, as quoted by Sme.

The European Commission may eventually submit the case to the European Court of Justice, according to an earlier statement from the press department at the Representation of the European Commission in Slovakia which had been provided to the SITA newswire.

However, the government is arguing that even if the toll collection system is expensive it is still high quality, Sme wrote.

The SanToll-Ibertax consortium won the tender with a bid of €852.1 million, including VAT, the highest bid received. Among the competing bidders, Slovakpass, led by the Italian company Autostrade, proposed to charge only €630.9 million while the bid from the Slovak-Swiss consortium ToSy was for €651.3 million and Kapsch, headed by the Austrian firm Kapsch TrafficCom AG, Vienna, bid €749.2 million. The procurer, the National Highway Company (NDS), subsequently excluded all the bidders except SanToll-Ibertax.

The contract with the SanToll-Ibertax consortium, then operating under the name SkyToll, was signed on January 13, 2009. Even though the winner had been announced as early as May 2008, the process was substantially delayed while the Public Procurement Office reviewed more than 12 complaints submitted by the excluded bidders.

One of the bidders, Slovakpass, questioned the qualifications of the tender commission and the independence of one of the commission’s consultants and it submitted its complaints to the EC. Kapsch TrafficCom, an Austrian company, said in 2008 that other bidders had submitted bids with false information concerning the effectiveness of their toll collection systems, the SITA newswire wrote. The opposition has called on the government of Robert Fico to cancel the tender and announce a new one. The Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party has also asked state officials to publish the names of the people who were part of the selection committee or who acted as technical advisers.


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