AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt was in the hot seat in Augusta today, defending the decision to contract with a private company to operate the Casco Bay Bridge between Portland and South Portland.
Members of the Legislature's Transportation Committee are upset that Bernhardt entered the state into a five year, $3.8 million contract with a Florida-based company without consulting them.
Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Lewiston, says he had heard rumors about a plan to contract out for operation and maintenance of the bridge but felt blindsided by the department's announcement.
"I was very caught off guard when an announcement came that you know there had been an intent to enter into a contract," Golden says.
Democratic Representative Andrew McLean from Gorham, who is the panel's House co-chair, says he was also surprised.
"For me, most of all, this represents a significant policy shift, you know it, it, for me if there's anything that falls under the purview of the DOT it is the maintenance and operation of one of the most critical bridges in Maine, so for me this is an issue of safety," McLean says.
But Commissioner Bernhardt says safety will not be compromised under the contract, which requires the operator to follow certain safety procedures and policies.
"The opening of it the closing of it, all those safety things that have been built in to it, because there are a lot of things built into it for safety and the way we operate it stay the same," Bernhardt says.
And Bernhardt says the DOT already has many contracts for services, more than 200 for maintenance of various facilities, and that this one is one of the smaller contracts. He says he's a bit frustrated by all the attention being focused on the Casco Bay Bridge when he gave the committee a report a year ago about the maintenance backlog facing the rest of the state's bridges.
"We have 2,744 bridges," Bernhardt says. "I would much rather be talking about 2,743 bridges than this one bridge. I think we are doing the right thing. I think we are doing the right thing by repurposing positions."
Bernhardt says he plans to sign the contract next week. The state positions now used to staff the bridge will be repurposed to other jobs at DOT and will create savings in other areas of the agency's budget.
The bridge is considered one of the major transportation facilities in the state, and is a primary commuter route for thousands of Mainers. It is the largest drawbridge in the state, and more than 30,000 vehicles cross it every day and cargo vessels pass under it into the port of Portland including a significant amount of oil products.