Friday, January 22, 2016

Secrecy of Casco Bay Bridge privatization sets dangerous precedent - Sen. Bill Diamond

The privatization of Casco Bay Bridge is a first-of-its kind experiment for our state, with huge implications on public safety, commerce and taxpayer dollars. Such a massive change in the way we handle our obligations deserved scrutiny and transparency.

Instead, the Maine Department of Transportation signed a deal without any accountability to the public. There were no public hearings and no oversight from the legislature's transportation committee, which is responsible for the department's budget, including funds to operate the Casco Bay Bridge.

That’s a move in the wrong direction.

Safeguarding the safety of Maine people and the economic success of our state are among the most important job of elected officials. Those two concerns crop up in nearly all aspect of state government, even ones that aren’t obvious.  

That includes our state’s transportation infrastructure — its roads and bridges, ports, rails and airports.

So it came as a surprise when the Maine DOT announced this week that it had agreed to privatize the operations of the Casco Bay Bridge. We learned that the department had made a five-year, $3.8 million deal to put one of the state’s most important infrastructure assets into the hands of an out-of-state company.

Connecting the Portland peninsula to points south, the Casco Bay Bridge is a major conduit for travel, workday commutes and commerce. Between 30,000 and 35,000 vehicles pass over it every day, making it one of the most travelled bridges in our state.

The sea traffic underneath is just as important. The Casco Bay Bridge is the largest drawbridge in the state, and its safe opening and closing allows for huge oil tankers and other large vessels to pass underneath.

This is the first time the state has privatized such an operation, and the deal making lacked the appropriate level of transparency. I serve on the transportation committee. Not only were we never briefed on this deal, we weren't given reasons why the deal should have been made in the first place.

The workers who currently operate the bridge have a stellar work record and have responded admirably in emergencies.

Despite their success in protecting the public safety and commercial operation they oversee, those workers now face layoffs through no fault of their own. To add insult to injury, their layoffs won't save the state any money. According to media reports, Maine DOT says paying a Florida-based company to run the bridge will cost the same as running it ourselves.

In the wake of this decision, we are left with nothing but questions: Why is privatization necessary? Who is this company that’s been chosen to operate the bridge? What is their safety record? How much leeway does the contract give this out-of-state company? They’ll be looking to make money off this deal, but their agenda toward that end is unknown. Will they want to establish a toll, or some other means of generating revenue?

Maine DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt has agreed to meet with me and other members of the committee, so we may get answers to those questions. Regardless, he’s already told me the decision to privatize the bridge has been made.

This is just the latest example of concerns that have been raised by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers regarding the lack of transparency that seems to be increasing in state government. departments often refuse to appear before legislative committees making it difficult for the legislature to obtain critical information. In this case, Maine DOT made a major policy change without the proper transparency and accountability toward the public or the legislature.

This scenario cannot be repeated. The legislature is responsible for crafting budgets for all state agencies. We also have oversight over the laws and policies that govern the various departments of the executive branch. That duty is derived from our responsibility to represent the best interests of our constituents, who elected us to be their voice in Augusta.

If government agencies are allowed to make monumental, unilateral changes to how the state cares for its critical infrastructure, what other changes can it make alone? What other important state services can be altered or dismantled before anyone outside the executive branch ever finds out?

When state agencies shut out the legislature, they shut out the public. With taxpayer dollars, public safety and economic concerns on the line, that’s just wrong.

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