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Connecticut Port Authority faces criticism, chooses firm for State Pier redevelopment

The Connecticut Port Authority is negotiating a contract with Omaha-based Kiewit, a national construction, engineering and mining company, to serve as construction manager for the $157 million redevelopment project at State Pier in New London.

The authority’s board, facing some opposition from critics, approved the move on Tuesday and additionally voted to spend up to $2.8 million with Kiewit for preconstruction services that involve examination of the project’s design, budget, schedule and logistics.

The recommendation of Kiewit, one of two companies shortlisted for the job, came after review by representatives from the port authority and state Department of Administrative Services and Office of Policy and Management.

Among other projects in its portfolio, Kiewit was contracted for work at Electric Boat in Groton in 2004 and 2005 to perform $22 million in emergency repairs and $38 million in long-term repairs to a dry dock.

Over the next few weeks, Kiewit is expected to start behind-the-scenes work related to State Pier while port authority Executive Director John Henshaw works out terms of a contract to present to the authority's board for a vote in January.

“We’re going to be proceeding with the project full steam ahead,” Kosta Diamantis, deputy secretary of the state Office of Policy and Management, told the board at its monthly meeting, which was held virtually Tuesday afternoon.

Those involved expect the choice of Kiewit will help jump-start a project slated to be completed in 2022 and transform State Pier into a hub for the offshore wind industry thanks to a partnership between the state and joint venture partners Ørsted and Eversource.

Critics, however, some of whom spoke during the port authority's annual public hearing, also held virtually, on Tuesday evening, are seeking to halt the process and have taken a list of complaints to the State Contracting Standards Board, a group that examines whether or not state contracting and procurement requirements are consistent with state and federal statutes and regulations.

Chris Fryxell, the president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Connecticut, spoke before the State Contracting Standards Board on Friday and to the port authority board on Tuesday, calling for the construction manager position to be rebid “openly and fairly” without a project labor agreement so that it includes nonunion companies. Project labor agreements assure the use of union labor.

Fryxell said while state statute allows the use of project labor agreements, there needs to be justification because it unfairly discriminates against nonunion contracts.

“Unfortunately, what a PLA does is create an uneven playing field for contractors and it prevents qualified contractors from a fair opportunity to bid on a project,” Fryxell told the state board.

Diamantis cast doubt on the contention the project labor agreement was contrary to state statute and said Tuesday the statutory authority “was there” and that he was sure the port authority had a PLA in place “for the best interests of the project.”

Fryxell is not the only one to lodge a complaint with the State Contracting Standards Board, which heard concerns about the project at its meeting Friday.

Longtime port authority critic Kevin Blacker and Peter Olsen, a spokesman for the longshoremen displaced by the State Pier redevelopment project, both offered criticism.

Blacker alleged the port authority has shown a pattern of disregarding state statute, as evidenced by the lack of a quorum at its annual public hearings over the past two years.

“I understand you guys are the watchdogs,” Blacker told the state board. “I think the watchdog should have teeth and there needs to be consequences when the rules are broken.”

Olsen, trustee and financial secretary for International Longshoremen’s Association, Local 1411, wrote to the state board on behalf of the 60 longshoremen displaced by the project to complain about the contract the port authority entered into with Gateway for operation of State Pier.

The request for proposals for an operator of the port referred to a multi-use port, Olsen said, with service to ships that have delivered cargo such as steel, lumber and salt.

“After Gateway received the contract, with no explanation, the plan changed to making State Pier as a single use wind facility,” Olsen wrote.

Out of the 60 longshoreman working at State Pier, only four remain on a temporary basis.

“Neither Gateway nor the Connecticut Port Authority has given ILA 1411 any assurance that our union, which has provided labor at New London State Pier since the 1930s, will be the workforce after renovations,” Olsen wrote.

He asked the State Contracting Standards Board for a review of the concession and harbor development agreements at State Pier.

“It doesn’t seem right that the State and CPA should shut down a multi-use port to benefit a Hedge fund, Utility Company, and Foreign countries at the expense of Connecticut taxpayers, Eversource rate payers and existing Connecticut businesses and organizations,” Olsen wrote.

Steve Farrelly, president of DRVN Enterprises, which is being displaced from State Pier and working to sell its massive pile of road salt or forfeit it to the port authority, additionally spoke before the State Contracting Standards Board.

“We find ourselves on the brink of bankruptcy,” Farrelly said.

Members of the State Contracting Standards Board did not vote on whether they intended a formal review of the matter but did indicate throughout the meeting they planned further talks with those who had filed complaints.

The port authority's board on Tuesday formally approved an extension for DRVN to stay at State Pier an extra month, through January. DRVN has asked to stay through the winter.

More criticism came during the port authority's public hearing on Tuesday evening.

New London Mayor Michael Passero said there had been a series of “egregious broken promises” that have resulted in a strained relationship with the port authority.

Instead of remedying “a history of grossly inadequate compensation,” Passero said, the port authority has turned a blind eye to the stalled negotiations for a host community agreement that would benefit New London.

State Sen. Paul Formica said transparency and communication should be the priority of the port authority, a reference to a previous shakeup in management and reports of financial mismanagement at the authority that led to state oversight. He expressed concern about the lack of progress with the host agreement with New London and said it was “time to finalize the relationship with the host city.”

The one bit of praise came from Tony Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, who said the harbor redevelopment was “an enormous opportunity for the region and the state.”

With many people out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sheridan said the project would provide good-paying jobs and help expand and diversify the economy of the region.

The chamber’s board of directors last month unanimously endorsed the project.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version clarifies that the Connecticut Port Authority lacked a quorum at its annual public meetings for the past two years.

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