About 32,000 people per day drive over the Casco Bay Bridge between Portland and South Portland. Most probably don’t think about bridge operation and maintenance unless those activities end up delaying traffic.

But who runs and keeps up the span has been making headlines lately, after recent reports that the Maine Department of Transportation wants a private company to take over bridge operations. The MDOT hasn’t shared many details about the proposed privatization – and now is the time for it to get down to specifics.

There’s not much of a track record for the practice elsewhere. Monmouth County, New Jersey, turned over operation of four drawbridges to a private company in 2012. The winning contractor said it could do the job for $1.49 million a year, saving the county $500,000 annually in employee benefits and overtime expenses.

It’s unclear, though, whether the expected savings have materialized as planned, or whether there have been unintended consequences. (It’s also worth noting that although the handover was expected to be a pilot program for the rest of the state, no other New Jersey county has done the same thing, the Press Herald reported last week.)

Cutting expenses is the major factor driving the Casco Bay Bridge privatization plan, according to the MDOT. But the agency hasn’t said how much it spends now to operate or maintain the bridge, so we don’t know whether those costs are out of line with what other states shell out.

The MDOT also says that operating and maintaining the bridge doesn’t address the agency’s “core mission,” unlike services such as plowing and road work. That’s a surprising shift in attitude, given that a 2007 MDOT report on Maine bridge safety called bridges “critical transportation assets.”

What’s more, the LePage administration has spoken up early and often about the need to make it easier for companies to do business in Maine. The condition of the state’s infrastructure directly affects the health of Maine’s economy. Well-maintained roads and bridges make it easier for tourists to get around and for Maine businesses to ship goods out of state.

Public safety, of course, is another major concern. How would the MDOT hold a private contractor accountable for operating and maintaining the span to accepted standards? Would the public retain the right to see records related to bridge operations if a private business were in charge?

The outcome of one of the state’s biggest ventures into privatization gives us pause, too. Having a private contractor coordinate non-emergency transportation for MaineCare recipients was supposed to generate massive savings for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Instead, it cost $5.4 million more to operate in 2014-15 than in previous years – a jump of 12 percent over 2013-14.

All of these issues and unanswered questions make us uneasy: Those who use any part of Maine’s transportation system shouldn’t have to dig for details on how the state plans to ensure that this system is safe and well-maintained. Before the MDOT signs any contracts, the public has the right to know much more.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: