FREEHOLD - Monmouth County should be required to rebid a contract to provide ferry service between the Belford section of Middletown and Manhattan because the initial request for proposal was vague, an attorney for NY Waterway told a judge Friday.
NY Waterway lawyer Maeve Cannon said the winning proposal by competitor Seastreak came with flaws that should have disqualified it as well.
"The only recourse is a rebid," Cannon said.
The hearing before state Superior Court Judge David Bauman in Monmouth County was a last-ditch attempt by NY Waterway to halt a decision by county commissioners in June that awarded the ferry operator's long-time route to Seastreak.
The dispute over the service comes as Monmouth County residents, emerging from pandemic mandates, return to Manhattan for work and leisure trips. And it will force Bauman to decide whether NY Waterway can get around a mandatory requirement in the proposal.
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Bauman said he would make a ruling in writing soon, but he didn't give a specific timeframe. Seastreak is scheduled to take over the route Oct. 27.
The case pits the county's two ferry operators against each other.
NY Waterway has operated the Belford-to-Manhattan route since its inception 20 years ago, carrying passengers to Pier 11/Wall Street, Battery Park City; Paulus Hook in Jersey City; and Midtown Manhattan/West 39th Street — and offering free transfers to other routes.
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Seastreak has operated from Highlands and Atlantic Highlands with stops at Pier 11/Wall Street and Midtown Manhattan/East 35th Street.
With the Belford contract up for renewal, both NY Waterway and Seastreak made bids. NY Waterway officials said they proposed 16 trips a day during the week for $21.50 each way. For its part, Seastreak proposed 11 daily trips during weekdays with a ticket price of $28 one way, according to court documents.
The issue: Monmouth County officials said NY Waterway's proposal was noncompliant because it didn't submit a Consent of Surety, a mandatory clause proving the company had a bond to ensure the service would continue in case it ran into financial trouble.
NY Waterway officials protested, saying it had a letter of credit from a bank instead of a bond that would prove its financial stability. And, they said, Seastreak's bid had holes as well.
Bauman didn't tip his hand during the 1½-hour hearing, asking pointed questions to both NY Waterway's Cannon and Monmouth County attorney David Clark and showing how a proposal that should have been fairly straightforward fell short.
The RFP said "in capital letters this agreement of surety is mandatory," Bauman told Cannon. "The agreement of surety must be definite, not conditional, and the failure to provide the security assurance is a fatal error and will automatically disqualify the proposal."
Cannon's response: The RFP wasn't so clear. She said the proposal also seemed to give applicants the option of submitting a letter-of-credit from a bank, a financial backstop that NY Waterway had previously used, instead of a bond.
Clark said Monmouth County was on firm legal footing, noting in court documents that there were no exceptions in the RFP to the Consent of Surety.
But Bauman challenged Clark, as well. The judge wondered why the county didn't just remove the provision about a letter-of-credit altogether.
"Looking back, I'm sure there's always things you could look at and say, 'I wish this was written in a different way. This would take away this argument, this would take away that argument,'" Clark said.
If the line was simply deleted, "we wouldn't be having this discussion right now," Bauman said.
Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy and health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: NY Waterway ferry: Judge must order Monmouth to seek new Belford bids