Democrats in the Maine legislature want the state Department of Transportation to explain why it has chosen to privatize maintenance and operation of the Casco Bay Bridge.
And they want that explanation as soon as next week. Senator Bill Diamond, a Windham Democrat, is questioning the department's claim that its $3.8 million dollar contract with Florida Drawbridge Inc. will be cost neutral with the elimination of nine DOT jobs at the bridge. Lawmakers also have concerns about the public safety implications of this contract.
There had been talk about the state Transportation Department possibly contracting the Casco Bay Bridge to a private operator earlier, but Diamond said the discussion never seemed to reach a resolution. Then he received a call from DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt informing him that a bid from Florida Drawbridge Inc. had been accepted. Diamond, a long-time member of the Legislature's Transportation Committee, said he was stunned by the news.
"This is a really unprecedented at least in my memory, where a department has this type of a huge policy shift and the oversight committee, the committee of substance, was not involved," Diamond said. "And I think it sets a very uneasy precedent."
At issue is the loss of nine state jobs at the bridge that connects Portland and South Portland along with assurances that FDI Services will operate the bridge safely. Diamond says he wants more answers from Bernhardt who has agreed to meet with the Transportation Committee next month to explain why the state is better off with a private contractor in a deal that apparently produces no immediate savings.
"The motivation doesn't seem to be because it saves money," Diamond said. "Essentially this is till going to cost $3.5 or $3.8 million either way they do it. That's my first question. The next one is the committee's involvement — obviously there wasn't any."
At state DOT headquarters in Augusta, Dale Doughty, the department's maintenance and operations director, says he is confident that FDI Services can provide the level of professional expertise that the state has demanded from its own workers. The company operates and maintains 51 bridges in several states and has an excellent track record for safety. A state DOT supervisor would continue to remain at the bridge under the five year contract with FDI. Doughty says the privatization allows the DOT to redeploy its resources more effectively and will eventually produce some financial savings down the line.
"The cost of this contract and the cost of us actually doing the light maintenance are about the same, so they are about cost neutral if you just look at the bridge," Doughty said. "However if you look at the network, I think that we will have a long-term savings to the infrastructure because we'll be able to preserve and maintain things better by not only refocusing these positions but positions that we refocused in the past through attrition and just adjusting our mission slightly."
As for the nine employees, Doughty said one has already indicated that he plans to retire and the others may find jobs elsewhere in the department or within state government. The contract also permits FDI to rehire some of the workers who are losing their jobs. Maine State Employees Association Executive Director Rodney Hiltz says his organization with make the welfare of those workers a top concern. But he also said that MSEA's objections to the privatization go beyond employment.
"Union members and people who work for unions are taxpayers and members of our community and what we care about is our community and our public safety and this is a public safety issue," Hiltz said.
Hiltz said the MSEA will be on hand at any future meeting of the Transportation Committee and DOT officials to in an effort to learn more about what Maine is better off by contracting with a Florida-based company.