Plans for a $100 million State Pier project, filling in acres of dock space, are secret

The Connecticut Port Authority is considering a $100 million grand remaking of State Pier, including filling seven acres of dock space between the existing pier structures, but won't disclose any of the design and engineering studies or cost estimates under review.

The publicly funded port authority has refused to provide any of the professional research being used to decide a question of enormous public interest, whether to spend tens of millions of dollars to remake New London's port into a temporary staging platform for offshore wind development.

The port authority refused to provide any of the technical analysis or cost estimates for the monumental project when I asked to review them last week.

It's beginning to look like the Freedom of Information Commission will have to eventually weigh in and make it clear to the port authority, after they spend a lot of money on their expensive lawyers, that they can't make decisions in private about spending vast amounts of public money on publicly owned infrastructure.

Gov. Ned Lamont seems to be on board with this secret deal-making with the wind industry. At least I didn't hear back anything on the record from the governor's office after I notified them last week of the port authority's refusal to provide what one authority official called "confidential" studies about improving the pier.

Some of what I know about the massive pier project comes from a recent interview in another newspaper with Scott Bates, the deputy secretary of the state who serves as the chair of the port authority board of directors. The authority is considering an ambitious remaking of the port, costing up to $100 million, that would include filling in the seven acres between the two piers so the wind companies could assemble turbines there before transporting them to the offshore farms, Bates told the newspaper.

He confirmed this in a conversation with me last week. The state has committed $25 million in general bonding money for pier improvements, not yet allocated for specific purposes, and the Danish wind company with a state energy contract has pledged $22.5 million for pier improvements.

The remaining money, more than $50 million, needed to do the work being contemplated, Bates said, would come from other sources, which he did not identify.

When I asked to see the studies and reports and cost estimates underlying the pier improvement proposals, he said he would have to check with "the lawyers." He said he had to check whether it might not be released for proprietary reasons.

After asking Bates directly for the studies, I heard back from Andrew Lavigne, manager of business development and special projects for the port authority, who told me, incredibly, that the last port improvement study on hand was one from 2014, back when the pier was managed by the state Department of Transportation.

But wait, I said, how could Bates be talking about $100 million improvements to accommodate the wind industry, when that wasn't even contemplated in 2014? The 2014 study, which has long been available online, certainly doesn't consider eliminating ship pier docking space to accommodate wind turbine assembly.

Well, Lavigne told me, there might be some "confidential" studies done by the wind industry or the pier operator, but he didn't know anything about them.

So, the port authority chairman is familiar enough with these studies to cite cost estimates and specific construction details, but the authority doesn't have copies of the plans? The wind companies flashed him a look see? The state is going to consider spending $100 million without possessing the underlying engineering and design studies?

This is absurd. If the port authority is using data and information to decide how to improve public property with public money, those reports being used and in the possession of the authority decision-makers are public, no matter who commissioned or paid for them.

The Day in June 2018 ran a rendering of what the shipping terminal could look like, with the area between the two piers filled in. The port authority provided it to the newspaper at the time the state approved $15 million in bonding money for unspecified pier improvements, and the newspaper asked what the money was for.

The one-page rendering was identified as a "maximum buildout potential."

When pressed, Lavigne insisted last week the rendering was not part of a larger study explaining how the piers would come to be filled in. It was just a one-page drawing commissioned from an artist by the port authority, sort of a made up vision of what might be.

Right. And I believe in the Easter Bunny, too.

Once my request for the studies was turned down Thursday, I filed a formal FOI request, asking also for communications with the port operator, since Lavigne suggested that might be how the port authority got the "confidential" reports.

I heard back from them Tuesday that they expect to respond to the entire FOI request by April 30.

In terms of long-term relationships, the one the state is considering with the wind industry might best be characterized as a one-night stand. They are not proposing manufacturing wind turbines here, just assembling them, a process that would take a few years at the most, as the farms are being erected. But then we don't know for sure, because they won't disclose the studies they are looking at.

Meanwhile, the big new fortified platform created out of the pier area could transform the piers in a way that would make them less useful in the future for other kinds of shipping. There would literally be less room for ships to dock.

Maybe Connecticut does want to pimp out a crucial asset for short-term use by an international wind conglomerate. Maybe it makes great sense.

But when you are going to make those kinds of important and costly decisions about public assets and money, you have to do it openly. That's the law.

It troubles me that the deputy secretary of the state and the new governor would be so ready to deny Connecticut citizens their lawful right to public government while cozying up for back-room deals with a Danish wind company.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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