The Maine Department of Transportation is seeking bids from a private contractor to operate and maintain the 18-year-old Casco Bay Bridge, which carries about 32,000 vehicles daily over the Fore River between Portland and South Portland.

The scope of the work outlined in the bid notice includes bridge operations, routine maintenance and incidental work. If the department finds a suitable bidder, it would be the first time the state has turned over bridge operations and maintenance to a private company. The notice was posted Wednesday, and bids are open until Nov. 18.

The reason for the change is savings, DOT spokesman Ted Talbot said.

“As we reflect on our core mission and core priorities, we realize that sticking to our core mission is cost-effective for the taxpayer and more efficient for the department,” Talbot said. “We would rather use our positions currently there and dedicate them to maintaining infrastructure related to our core activities, which include snowplowing, roadwork, culverts, and things like that. The more we can privatize things that are not our core activities, we will be looking to do that kind of thing.”

The news surprised Rod Hiltz, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, who said he was “hugely concerned” for public safety as well as the futures of the eight to 12 employees who work at the bridge if a bid is accepted.

“Anybody who drives or walks over that bridge should be concerned about this,” Hiltz said. “Our people have a proven track record for operating and maintaining that bridge. We have an excellent safety record and this is critical work.”

Talbot would not discuss security concerns related to the bridge. “I am not able to comment on the security aspects,” he said. “That will be discussed with any potential contractors.”

He did not have figures available Thursday to indicate the annual cost of maintaining the bridge.

The bridge is unique in Maine because of its size, the volume of traffic it accommodates and the frequency with which its movable decks open to allow ships to pass safely below. There are no other comparable bridges in Maine, and its operation is out of character with the rest of the department’s activities, Talbot said.

The state has always maintained the bridge, sometimes contracting for specialized services such as electricians.

Talbot said the department is eager to see if acceptable bids are returned. “We’ve never done this, so we don’t know what to expect. We are hopeful qualified bidders show an interest, but we just don’t know,” he said.

Hiltz said the state employees association is accustomed to efforts by the state to turn jobs over to the private sector. But he was alarmed when he learned of this effort, because of the critical nature of the Casco Bay Bridge.

“What’s the profit margin for public safety?” he said. “Why is someone trying to make a profit on taxpayer-funded public services? Taxpayers shouldn’t pay taxes so a corporation can make profits.”

 


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