Virginia got just one bidder for a $100M+ radio project. A key legislator wasn’t happy about it.

By: - October 23, 2020 12:01 am
A parking lot outside a UVA dorm was filled with hundreds of state police cruisers on Wednesday afternoon. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Aug. 8, 2018)

A parking lot outside a UVA dorm was filled with hundreds of state police cruisers in advance of the one year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in 2017. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Aug. 8, 2018)

Motorola was the only company interested in bidding on an expensive project to update Virginia’s statewide public safety radio system, an outcome that led a competitor to complain the process was one-sided and drew scrutiny from a top lawmaker.

The Statewide Agencies Radio System, or STARS, began with a $329 million contract between the state and Motorola in 2004, with the goal of establishing a 24/7, digital voice and data communications system used by nearly two dozen state agencies. 

Much of that equipment is now aging out, and the General Assembly has already allocated up to $120 million in bond proceeds to pay for replacements and upgrades. Another $40 million is expected to be allocated before the project’s estimated completion in the summer of 2023.

When Virginia State Police procurement officials issued a request for proposals for new radio equipment this summer and convened a mandatory pre-bid meeting for companies interested in the project, only Motorola and its partners showed up, according to state procurement records.

L3Harris Technologies, a Motorola competitor with an office in Lynchburg, says there’s a reason they took a pass: They felt the project specifications were written in a way that locked in Motorola as the winner.

“I wish to be very clear that L3Harris is extremely disappointed that the commonwealth apparently did not make every effort to ensure that the STARS procurement would be fully competitive,” Nino A. DiCosmo, the president of L3Harris’s Public Safety and Professional Communications Division, wrote in an Aug. 4 letter to Gov. Ralph Northam and other state leaders. “We do not believe that this active procurement is in the taxpayers’ best interests.”

Harris insists the highly technical RFP includes several requirements that only Motorola can meet, mostly dealing with the new equipment having to be interoperable with an existing Motorola system.

The State Police have disputed that claim, suggesting L3Harris’s technology could conceivably work if the company had made a stronger effort to win the contract. In response to L3Harris’s concerns, State Police Superintendent Col. Gary Settle wrote a letter saying the process had been “open, fair and competitive.”

“VSP in no way manipulated the process by creating overly narrow requirements,” Settle wrote.

L3Harris has pointed specifically to repeaters, the radio equipment installed in troopers’ vehicles that connects their in-car and portable radios to the wireless network. Because Motorola’s repeaters are proprietary and the RFP says all new equipment has to work with old equipment throughout the process, L3Harris claims, only Motorola can meet that requirement.

In government procurement, officials usually want competitive bidding because it can help bring down the cost to taxpayers by incentivizing companies to offer a better deal to land the contract. The Virginia Public Procurement Act states that competitive bidding should be used whenever possible, but allows for sole-source procurement if a government agency determines only one vendor can offer the goods or services needed.

In a Sept. 8 letter to the State Police, Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, who has a significant role in crafting the state’s budgets as chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, said she was “very disappointed” the process resulted in just one bid. She noted that the procurement was supposed to make use of Project 25, a set of agreed-upon standards intended to ensure public-safety radios can communicate with each other no matter the manufacturer.

“It is extremely troubling that the request for proposals (RFP) for open standard Project 25 technology has seemingly been written in a manner that only one vendor can comply with the specifications,” Howell wrote. “Including in the RFP proprietary specifications eliminates competition and is not in the best interest of the commonwealth.”

During the just-completed special session, Howell went so far as to propose a budget amendment that would’ve paused the radio procurement until the State Police and the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, which is also involved in the procurement, delivered a report on their efforts to the General Assembly’s budget committees.

That amendment, which called for the report to be turned in by Dec. 18, didn’t make it into the final budget the legislature approved last week. Howell did not respond to multiple requests for comment on why the amendment wasn’t included.

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, chair of the Senate Finance committee, adjusts her face mask during the floor session in the temporary Virginia Senate chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, VA Wednesday, August 26, 2020. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

In Settle’s letter defending the process, a communication addressed to Howell, the State Police leader said he was “confident” the procurement could continue.

“If VSP feels like the chosen vendor is not negotiating in good faith or the commonwealth is not achieving a fair and equitable cost, VSP has the ability to cancel the RFP and start the process again,” Settle wrote.

The bidding process for the contract closed on Aug. 10, and no award has been announced yet.

The State Police declined to comment further, noting that both the RFP process and the state budget are still pending.

A Motorola spokeswoman directed questions to the State Police and said the company is “unable to comment on the response or capabilities of other vendors.”

L3Harris spokeswoman Natalie Ciao said the company would like to see Virginia rethink the terms of its RFP with a goal of “fair and healthy competition.”

“L3Harris Technologies would like to see the procurement process be revisited and a new RFP written in a non-proprietary way,” Ciao said.

In his letter, Settle suggested L3Harris’s complaints are irrelevant since the company didn’t show up to the required pre-bid meeting. As far as the State Police are concerned, he said, L3Harris has “no standing in the RFP, nor standing to contest an RFP they have chosen not to participate in.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]