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Build a $20 million Coast Guard museum bridge without the museum?

I spent part of Thanksgiving week, though not the holiday itself, trying to get an answer from Gov. Ned Lamont to a question of great significance to New London: Will the state release money to build the $20 million pedestrian bridge over Water Street to the proposed Coast Guard museum even if not enough money has been raised to build the museum?

Thankfully, by Friday afternoon, I had a good answer: No. That answer probably does not please the National Coast Guard Museum Association, which has been pressuring the state to release more of the promised $20 million state bridge money, as its own fundraising campaign appears to flounder.

I know. I know.

It seems preposterous to think the state would go ahead and build a $20 million pedestrian bridge meant to connect the already-inadequate, often filled-to-capacity Water Street garage to what seems to be an enormous pipe dream: a big glassy museum on a flood plain, on the wrong side of a high-speed rail line and with nowhere near enough funding in place after many years of lackluster fundraising.

And yet that is exactly what the National Coast Guard Museum Association has been proposing to the state: release more of the $20 million, what hasn't already been spent on design and engineering, and we will go ahead and build the bridge before there is money or even approvals to build the main museum building.

Or, in other words, we can't come up with enough money to build the museum we are proposing, after many years of trying, but let's go ahead and start spending some of the money Connecticut has promised for the project.

The problem with this money grab by the museum is that former Gov. Dannel Malloy wisely conditioned the release of the bridge money on the museum association successfully raising enough money to build the museum.

According to the financing agreement with the state, the projects — the bridge and museum — need to move forward more or less simultaneously.

And yet, while no one has disclosed this publicly, I learned from documents obtained in a Freedom of Information request that the association has been lobbying since the spring for the state to change the financing agreement for the $20 million and allow the group to build only the bridge, without the museum.

There are even renderings of what this would look like, a big glassy bridge, which the city would be responsible for maintaining, soaring high over the railroad cable line towers and ending, not at a new museum, but at an elevator tower that would drop walkers onto an empty waterfront lot.

This is just what the poor city needs from a state government that is otherwise willing to starve it of money, like payment in lieu of taxes for the commercial development proposed at State Pier.

No doubt it would please the private ferry company on the other side of the tracks, which is always ready to swallow millions of dollars in public subsidies.

The state's liaison to the museum project, Robert Ross, director of the Office of Military Affairs, seemed generally supportive of the build-the-bridge-first effort in correspondence I reviewed, as he apparently prepared with museum officials to discuss the proposal with Lamont in a meeting in late September.

He certainly didn't try to dissuade them from the idea.

Ross also addressed what he forecast could be opposition to the bridge at a public hearing in the city.

"I suspect the public hearing will draw out all the usual uniformed critics who favor Fort Trumbull as the site for the museum," he wrote. I think he meant the uninformed critics, the taxpayers who almost certainly would vote down the flood plain museum on the wrong side of the tracks if they had a chance to.

Thinking that an existing Fort Trumbull site, with parking options, necessary infrastructure and historic Coast Guard traditions, is preferable to the inaccessible downtown flood plain is what makes them uninformed, I guess.

In one of the emails I reviewed, the museum officials acknowledged worries about the process of getting environmental permits for the project. Even if they ever raise the money, it's not certain they can get environmental approval to build it.

In a May letter to state Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman, the museum association proposed starting construction of the bridge project this fall, suggesting that it would also be a job stimulus program.

A statement I got from the commissioner Friday expressed a pretty emphatic no to this idea. It said there are currently no changes being considered for the $20 million assistance agreement, which calls for the bridge to be built at the same time as the museum.

"Ensuring there are sufficient private funds to complete the project, alongside the Federal and State funds, is very important to the success of the public-private partnership," the statement said.

Amen.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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