The Maine Department of Transportation intends to award a five-year, $3.8 million contract to operate and maintain the Casco Bay Bridge to a Florida company, the first time the state has turned over bridge operations to a private firm.

The move is cost-neutral for the bridge operation, but will allow the agency to reallocate eight of the nine state positions now dedicated to Casco Bay Bridge operations to other transportation work, primarily bridge and road maintenance, said Dale Doughty, director of maintenance and operations for the Department of Transportation. That will result in some financial savings elsewhere, and allow for more roadwork to be done in a timely manner, he said.

“For the last decade, we’ve been looking to focus Maine DOT’s internal staffing resources on activities which are most appropriate, efficient and effectively performed by our work force,” Doughty said at a news conference Monday at the International Marine Terminal. “Some work is best done by contractors.”

The state selected Miami-based FDI Services Inc., which also does business as Florida Drawbridge Inc., for the contract. The bridge operations company will provide the same service as the Department of Transportation, with two-person crews operating the bridge around the clock, and doing light maintenance. The state will continue to have an on-site supervisor at the bridge, and will handle heavy maintenance and structural work.

FDI Services Inc. will also use the same procedures at the bridge, undergo the same training as current bridge employees and follow all of the same emergency plans. “None of those things will change,” Doughty said. The switch should not be noticeable to users or bridge partners, such as the cities of South Portland and Portland and the Coast Guard.

The contract will also not affect the Department of Transportation’s existing contracts with other contractors used in bridge operations, such as the Cianbro master electrician who is called when the sensors indicate a problem and the bridge shuts down, Doughty said.

FDI Services, an affiliate of Florida Drawbridge, has been in operation since 1997 and has contracts with state departments of transportation, county and local governments from the Florida Keys to New Jersey, operating and maintaining 51 bridges.

Some lawmakers objected to the decision.

“The Maine Department of Transportation has a responsibility to use taxpayer dollars wisely and protect public safety. 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,” House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said in a statement jointly issued with Reps. Sara Gideon and Andrew McLean.

“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,” McCabe wrote.

FOCUS ON OPERATIONS

The Casco Bay Bridge is the biggest of Maine’s eight movable bridges. It carries between 30,000-35,000 cars per day with peaks as high as 2,500 cars per hour, as well as opening for marine traffic on an average of 2.3 times per day, according to Maine DOT. It connects Portland and South Portland over the Fore River.

Doughty said there are other examples of the Department of Transportation deciding to contract out some work to keep the state workforce focused on particular projects or to save money.

For example, the state does not commit any human resources to the operation of the two movable bridges – the Memorial and Sarah Mildred Long bridges – jointly owned by Maine and New Hampshire that link Kittery to New Hampshire. Instead, the Department of Transportation just pays Maine’s share of the bridges’ cost to the state of New Hampshire.

Doughty said the department is not using the Casco Bay Bridge contract as a test run to see if there are other operations that could be contracted out.

“I think this is a unique situation,” he said. That said, they are constantly evaluating the department’s efficiency: “We’re looking at everything all the time.”

The state department said it is working with current bridge employees to determine potential placement opportunities within the department, state government and the private sector, including with FDI.

Union officials said they were seeking more information about the contract before deciding whether to seek discussions with the state over the impact of the job losses.

“My question is, why would they contract out to an out-of-state, for-profit entity the safety and security of such a critical piece of transportation infrastructure?,” said Rod Hiltz, the executive director of the Maine State Employees Association Local 1989. “I don’t understand the advantage, particularly if it is cost neutral.”

“Who is being held accountable?,” he said. “It’s easier to hold people accountable when they work for the state than if they work for a third party, particularly for a for-profit third party,” he said.

Representatives from Florida’s and New Jersey’s departments of transportation did not return calls Monday to comment on their states’ contracts with FDI Services.

A search of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration database revealed no actions against FDI Services, nor was it involved in any drawbridge investigations conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board in the last 10 years. A lawsuit filed in 2002 by a Florida man who was seeking $15,000 in damages from FDI Services and others was settled out of court. The complaint alleged the man was injured when the bridge he was crossing in his vehicle started to open and then shut, causing a jolt to his body.

Officials from FDI Services will first visit the bridge and meet with Maine DOT’s management team in early January. They will then assign a company supervisor to begin locally seeking employees to staff their operations, including those currently operating the bridge. Upon completion of fully staffing the bridge, new employees will undergo joint training and testing with Maine DOT and FDI Services Inc., according to the release.

A full transition to FDI Services is expected by late February or early March 2016.