Several lawmakers on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee want the state’s transportation chief to explain his decision to subcontract operations and maintenance of the Casco Bay Bridge to a private firm in Florida.

The action, which reflects a public-sector privatization trend that has gained favor in the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, did not sit well with several members of the committee that oversees transportation policy in Maine.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt should have explained the decision to the committee before moving forward with a significant policy change. The failure to do so, he said, could “poison” a good working relationship while “creating a lot of suspicion” about other changes pursued by the Department of Transportation.

“This is a potentially precedent-setting decision with implications on bridge safety, public workers and public dollars,” Diamond said. “It seems to me that such a decision should not be made without the oversight committee’s direct knowledge or involvement.”

MDOT announced Monday that it had awarded a five-year, $3.8 million contract to Miami-based FDI Services Inc., marking the first time that the state has turned over bridge operations to a private firm. Although the request for bids was made public in October, Democrats on the transportation panel criticized MDOT for not explaining the reasons for privatizing the operation of a busy bridge that links the state’s largest city with South Portland, another commercial and retail hub.

Although the recession prompted many states to privatize transportation and other services to cut costs, lawmakers were critical of a plan that MDOT officials described as “cost neutral” and a re-prioritizing of the state workforce.

Several lawmakers said Bernhardt notified them of the new contract around noon Monday. Diamond said individual lawmakers have inquired about the privatization bid since the state’s request for bids surfaced in October. He and other lawmakers planned to tour the bridge Wednesday, but postponed the visit because of weather. Now Diamond wants Bernhardt to explain the change to the committee.

“The commissioner said (Monday) that he’s willing to meet with us,” Diamond said. “I expect we will have a lot of questions.”

AMOUNT OF SAVINGS UNCLEAR, IF ANY

Republican Sen. Ron Collins, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, was less concerned about the switch. He said Bernhardt told him nearly a year ago that the MDOT was considering subcontracting bridge operations to a private firm.

“It’s been discussed and described to me as a way for the state to save money and use that money for the capital fund (for infrastructure improvements),” Collins said. “Anytime I hear that the state is being active in saving money and putting money into the capital fund, I say, ‘Hurray, let’s do it.’ ”

Collins could not quantify the projected savings, saying it was up to MDOT to “publicize it.”

MDOT officials have said that any savings are secondary to the main goal of reassigning bridge staff to infrastructure projects better suited for state workers and at a higher priority for MDOT.

“It’s not about a payoff in X number of years,” said MDOT spokesman Ted Talbot. “It’s about asking if we should have these employees assigned to a drawbridge or preserving our infrastructure such as the rehabilitation of our roads.”

The agency has said the change allows it to reallocate eight of nine positions from bridge operations to other department work, primarily bridge and road maintenance. It is helping the displaced bridge employees to find other jobs within the department, state government or the private sector, including with FDI Services, MDOT has said.

FDI Services, which also does business as Florida Drawbridge Inc., won the bid over Maine-based Cianbro Corp., Talbot said. He said Cianbro’s bid was higher, but cost was only part of the contract qualifications, which included experience maintaining and operating other bridges, and positive references.

A department tabulation of bids dated Nov. 18 and posted online indicated Cianbro’s five-year bid was $7.07 million, nearly double the bid of FDI Services.

SERVICES, PROCEDURES UNCHANGED

FDI Services will provide the same service as MDOT, 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 also will use the same procedures at the bridge, undergo the same training as current bridge employees and follow all of the same emergency plans.

According to 2014 state payroll data, MDOT bridge operators earn between $25,000 and $33,000 annually.

The privatization of public services has proceeded in fits and starts since the early 1980s, when then-President Ronald Reagan advanced the view that the public sector is a cumbersome and inefficient bureaucracy best replaced by the innovative and efficient private sector. Reagan’s view continues to be embraced by libertarian conservatives, including the Reason Foundation, which compiles and analyzes state-led efforts to privatize services, such as roads, prisons, liquor operations and state lotteries.

The quest for privatization has been carried forward by some Republican governors, as well as mayors of several large cities. Some of the changes have been motivated by budgetary pressure. In 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, created a task force to evaluate whether privatizing some public services would help close the state’s budget gap.

BENEFITS OF PRIVATIZATION DEBATED

In Maine, the LePage administration has shown an interest in privatizing part of the corrections system and mental health services, especially the residential treatment now offered at Riverview Psychiatric Center.

Studies of privatization have produced mixed results. John Donahue, an expert on privatization at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told The Atlantic last year that private firms can deliver efficiencies when the service is explicitly defined and subject to competition. However, privatization can sometimes go wrong. In Chicago, for example, an independent auditor found that the city received $1 billion less than it should have from a deal to privatize parking meters.

It’s unclear why MDOT officials felt the need to privatize operations of the Casco Bay Bridge, since the move hasn’t been cast as a solution to a fiscal problem, but as a way to focus the agency’s resources on other tasks.

“The need to privatize isn’t clear to me,” Diamond said in a statement released Tuesday. “The state workers on the bridge have done a fine job and run a tight ship, but now they face layoffs. Meanwhile, the state doesn’t save any money. I have a lot of questions about the benefits of this contract.”