Democratic lawmakers criticize Casco Bay Bridge privatization

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PORTLAND — The Maine Department of Transportation will award a five-year, $3.8 million contract to Florida-based FDI Services to operate and maintain the Casco Bay Bridge.

The decision, announced Monday, drew criticism from some Maine legislators.

House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, chided MDOT in a press release, stating that “it should have consulted with the Legislature about such a drastic decision to hire an out-of-state company to operate the Casco Bay Bridge.”

“The privatization of the bridge puts 12 Maine jobs at risk,” McCabe said. “Instead of announcing the decision during the holiday week, the process should have been more transparent and offered an opportunity for the public to weigh in.”

MDOT in late October issued a request for bids to private contractors to operate the bridge connecting Portland and South Portland.

FDI Services will operate and maintain the bridge’s movable parts, specifically the drawbridge, under “direct management and initial training” from MDOT, department spokesman Ted Talbot said Tuesday. This includes raising the drawbridge and other minor operations, such as controlling “anything from switches to fuses.”

The plan is to continue hiring outside contractors for heavy maintenance and improvements, such as upgraded lighting planned for next spring, he said.

The Casco Bay Bridge, which opened to traffic in 1997, is the largest movable bridge in the state and has been operated by MDOT employees since it opened. Between 30,000 and 35,000 vehicles travel across the bridge each day, and the drawbridge is lifted for marine traffic at least twice a day.

FDI Services has operated and maintained more than 70 different types of movable bridges, mostly along the east coast, from the Florida Keys to New Jersey.

Representatives from FDI Services will meet with the MDOT management team in early January, and will “assign a company supervisor to begin locally seeking employees to staff their operations, including those currently operating the bridge,” according to an MDOT press release.

A “full transition into operations and routine maintenance will take place in late February or early March 2016,” the release said. “MaineDOT expects this transition to be seamless to the traveling public.”

MDOT will continue to oversee all bridge operations from the department’s  Scarborough office.

Dale Doughty, MDOT’s director of maintenance and operations, said in the release, “MaineDOT will always remain ultimately responsible to both its land and marine-based customers, as well as to the U.S. Coast Guard, for the safe and efficient operation of the Casco Bay Bridge.”

Talbot said it is an “absolute possibility” that bridge operators will be hired by FDI Services once the contract is solidified.

Still, legislators aren’t convinced that those jobs are safe and criticized the use of tax dollars to hire a non-local service provider.

“Turning the operations of our state’s largest bridge over to an out-of-state company is unprecedented, and the lack of transparency in reaching the decision raises concerns,” House Assistant Majority Leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said.

Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham and House chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said government is responsible for “ensuring that we have a safe and reliable transportation network. Privatizing the operations of one of the most important bridges in our state is not in the best interest of the taxpaying public.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

The Maine Department of Transportation will award a $3.8 million contract to a Florida-based company for operating and maintaining the drawbridge and other moveable parts of the Casco Bay Bridge between Portland and South Portland. (Mo Mehlsak / The Forecaster)

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.