Maine’s transportation chief said Thursday he plans to move forward with hiring a private firm to operate the Casco Bay Bridge despite critical questions from state lawmakers about the necessity and transparency of the deal.

David Bernhardt, commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, said that hiring FDI Services Inc. of Florida to operate and maintain the span connecting Portland and South Portland was part of the agency’s perennial push “to do things better.”

Contracting out the services is not expected to save the department money but will allow DOT staff to be allocated elsewhere. Yet some lawmakers have criticized the department for not consulting the Legislature about what they see as a significant policy shift for a major bridge in Maine.

Asked whether he would delay signing a contract with FDI next week, Bernhardt said the department is committed to the plan.

“I think we are going to stay the course,” he told members of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.

REASSURANCES AND SKEPTICISM

DOT officials first announced in late December that the agency had awarded a five-year, $3.8 million contract to Miami-based FDI Services Inc., marking the first time that the state has turned over bridge operations to a private firm. Only one other firm, Maine-based Cianbro Corp., competed against FDI for the contract, and its bid was just over $7 million.

The DOT had more than 200 maintenance contracts with private firms last year, according to department officials. However, Democrats in the Legislature have seized on the proposed contract for Casco Bay Bridge because it serves as a major artery between Portland and South Portland as well as for larger ships accessing the Fore River under the drawbridge. The span is Maine’s largest movable bridge, carrying between 30,000 and 35,000 cars daily and opening for marine traffic an average of 2.3 times a day.

“I’m not comfortable at all with this contract and the fact that it is happening … and that this committee wasn’t included,” said Rep. Christine Powers, D-Naples. “And I’m still really uncomfortable with the safety issue.”

FDI Services, which operates more than 50 bridges for other states or municipalities, would keep the minimum two-person crew size that is used now, and a DOT supervisor would oversee operations. The presence at the committee meeting of several representatives of the Maine State Employees Association SEIU Local 1989 underscored the importance of the issue to the state’s labor union.

“Our biggest issue is the impact on public safety,” Rod Hiltz, executive director of the union, said after the meeting. “Right now we have fully qualified, fully trained workers doing this work with an excellent safety record. And now you are bringing in an out-of-state, for-profit entity.”

Critics of the contract also have called attention to a November 2015 incident in which a woman died after falling from a Miami drawbridge operated by FDI. News reports at the time said the woman was walking on the bridge after the warning arms had been lowered to stop traffic.

Bernhardt said the contract at Casco Bay Bridge will allow the DOT to reallocate eight of the nine staffing positions working at the bridge to other priorities, such as bridge preservation and maintenance elsewhere. He said the only change someone touring the bridge would see is a new name on the jacket of employees.

“The policies and procedures in place for this bridge – the opening of it, the closing of it, all of those safety things that have been built into it – stay the same,” Bernhardt said. “They do not change. (The contractors) are coming in and they have to follow all of our policies and they have to follow all of our procedures.”

UNION, SAFETY ISSUES, OR NO ISSUES?

For his part, Bernhardt seemed surprised and flustered by the extent of the concern over the issue, given the number of contracts DOT negotiates annually on such services as road maintenance and trucking. Several Republican members of the committee, including chairman Sen. Ronald Collins of Wells, were absent from the meeting devoted to the topic.

Rep. Bradlee Farrin, R-Norridgewock, questioned why other committee members were “stuck” on this issue and alluded to the heavy labor union presence in the room.

“I just want to say from my standpoint … I think the Department of Transportation has been very transparent with us in sharing the plan and I appreciate that,” Farrin said. “I hope we can continue on with the bipartisan work of this committee to do what’s best for the roads and bridges of the state of Maine.”

However, Democrats on the committee were unconvinced by Bernhardt’s assurances, especially after he indicated that the department planned to finalize the contract next week.

“We’re not saving any money and there is no emergency, so what is driving this?” asked Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. “What’s the rush? After an hour of listening to him, I still don’t know.”

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, said he plans to seek approval from legislative leaders for a late-introduction bill that would require outside review of DOT contracts when they involve large amounts of money or major transportation infrastructure. He said the Casco Bay Bridge contract is the type of major proposal that should have received legislative or outside review.

“This isn’t a partisan issue,” Golden said. “On issues of contracting, I always have a healthy skepticism and I just want to make sure that we are doing the right thing.”

 


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