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Legislators' bill asks for plans to abolish Connecticut Port Authority

In the many months after the Connecticut Port Authority imploded with scandal, I watched with some chagrin as eastern Connecticut lawmakers did little to intervene.

The greatest, most lasting injustice of the mismanagement at the port authority was turning the state-owned State Pier, the heart of the historic deepwater port of New London, over to its private competitor in New Haven.

The awarding of the contract for managing the port in New London to the politically connected Gateway Terminals of New Haven essentially led almost immediately to the closure of the state's port, the loss of dozens of longshoremen jobs and a near-death blow to the supplier of eastern Connecticut road salt, a direct Gateway competitor.

I am pleased to report that the legislators seem to be finally ready to address some of these enormous injustices with proposed legislation that the General Assembly's Transportation Committee is expected to take up this session.

Senate Bill 241 "An Act Concerning Oversight and Transparency at the Connecticut Port Authority," was introduced by five eastern Connecticut Democrats: Sen. Cathy Osten of Sprague, Sen. Norm Needleman of Essex, Rep. Christine Conley of Groton, Rep. Joe De la Cruz of Groton and Rep. Anthony Nolan of New London.

The bill generally sets up some parameters for providing the Transportation Committee with more answers about the activities of the port authority and how they affect port jobs, contracts and improvements.

But its most sweeping request is for the commissioner of transportation to detail "the steps necessary to return the duties of the Connecticut Port Authority to the Department of Transportation."

In other words, what would it take to unwind the creation of this problematic, scandal-prone quasi-public agency and return its important work to the state's Department of Transportation, where it traditionally resided.

When I caught up this week with Sen. Osten to talk about the port authority bill, she acknowledged that one idea lawmakers would like to explore is transferring the work of the port authority back into state government.

"If these things can't be resolved, it should be run by a state agency that handles million-dollar enterprises," she said.

Truer words were never spoken by a state lawmaker, I'd say.

Moving responsibility of the port authority back to state government need not interfere with plans to use the port in New London for wind turbine assembly, Osten said.  But management by New Haven port operators would no longer be necessary, she added.

"Gateway would not be needed," she said.

Osten noted that the legislature's review is preliminary and the port authority bill, like any legislation, would likely evolve in the process, especially after public hearings are held on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Committee is scheduled to hear an update on port authority business Friday morning, at an informational forum that had previously been scheduled.

The legislators' move to look more closely at the future of the port authority curiously comes at a time when the State Properties Review Board is conducting its own review of the Gateway contract for State Pier.

The board is acting on complaints about issues like the loss of longshoremen jobs, irregularities in the way the contract was awarded and links between the former port authority chairman and Gateway senior management, which includes the son of a former associate of the chairman.

Attorney General William Tong has shamefully refused to look into the obvious antitrust violations of turning the state's port over to its competitor, a deal cooked up by prominent Democrats, including, until only recently, the chairwoman of the party, who sat on the port authority board.

I am cheered by the apparent resolve of eastern Connecticut Democrats to get to the bottom of what has gone so terribly wrong here.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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