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The price for Coast Guard museum bridge is now $25 million, and looming

I'm pretty sure if you asked voters whether to spend $25 million to build a glassy pedestrian bridge across New London's Water Street, starting at an undersized parking garage, crossing distressingly close to the magnificent historic Union Station and ending at the site of an unbuilt Coast Guard museum, they would respond with a resounding no.

And yet the makings for such a folly are progressing.

Indeed, it has long been a $20 million bridge, after former Gov. Dannel Malloy pledged that much to build a pedestrian overpass connecting the Water Street parking garage to the planned Coast Guard museum on the flood plain on the other side of the railroad tracks.

That was more than seven years ago, and because of lackluster fundraising, plans for the ambitious museum on the downtown waterfront have stalled. Many deadlines have slipped by.

Gov. Ned Lamont recently refused a request, made personally at the governor's mansion by Coast Guard Commandant Karl L. Schultz on behalf of the National Coast Guard Museum Association, to start building the Water Street bridge before enough money has been raised to build the museum.

I might have thought that was the end of it. The governor said pretty succinctly: no museum, no $20 million bridge. About $1.2 million of the $20 million has been spent on design and permitting.

But then along comes the list of U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney's six new earmarks in the federal infrastructure bill — yes, earmarks are back — and his second-largest request is for another $4.9 million for the Water Street bridge, reflecting its rising cost, to $25 million.

I spoke to Courtney this week, and he assured me that the $4.9 million earmark for the New London bridge would be controlled by the state, which could withhold the money, as it has its own $20 million commitment, until the museum is ready to be built.

There is a four-year deadline to use the earmarks.

Still, the congressman insisted that "there is a benefit, aside from the museum ... to have a walkway to get to the northbound side of the train station."

Indeed, letters in support of the bridge project from Mayor Michael Passero and state Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman made no mention at all of the Coast Guard museum.

Lehman, noting that the estimated cost of the project is now $25 million, not the $20 million bonded by the state, talks only about the use of the bridge for transportation in his letter.

"(The project) will provide immediate safety improvements to the New London Transportation hub that services public transit, Greyhound, regional rail, Amtrak and two Ferry Terminals on the Thames River," he wrote.

You would think that was the only reason the state pledged $20 million in the first place.

Most alarming to me was his conclusion, noting that permits are submitted and a construction management firm is at the ready, that the "project is executable upon receipt of funds."

As the Coast Guard would say, that sounds like full speed ahead. There is no mention of waiting for the impossible museum to be built.

Of course, all of this is yet another gift of millions in public financing to honor the ever-lobbying ferry company, which has been trying to get the government to build a bridge across Water Street for decades.

The previous owners of the train station, who fought the bridge because of its affront to their historic building, are now gone. And it looks like the pretense of building the bridge for the unfunded museum on a flood plain may be gone too.

Maybe I missed it, but I can't think of a single accident or injury related to the lack of a pedestrian bridge over Water Street in the decades the project has been debated.

And yet safety appears to be the new pressing reason to spend $25 million for an overwrought, glassed-in modern monstrosity hovering over the downtown historic district, a new long-term maintenance nightmare for New London.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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