HARTFORD – Gov. Ned Lamont stood by Port Authority Chair David Kooris as the state Bond Commission approved another $30 million for the New London State Pier redevelopment – bringing the state’s total contribution for the project up to $210.5 million.
Lamont defended the redevelopment – now pegged at $309.25 million in total – as a “transformative” economic development investment for New London and the state. He said he wasn’t happy with how the process played out, but said the blame shouldn’t fall on Kooris, who took over as the chair of the embattled Port Authority in July 2019.
Lamont first announced the project as a $93 million redevelopment of the pier to be used for offshore wind development in May 2019. On Friday, he said “some players put out some numbers early on that were ill-conceived and poorly thought out.”
As the cost of the project has ballooned from those earlier estimates, officials have said $93 million was an early estimate for a project that wasn’t fully designed. Lamont acknowledged that created “false expectations,” and the state has been digging out from under them ever since. But he stood by Kooris, and said he’d appoint him again if given the chance.
“I wish I put David Kooris in there sooner because of the expertise he brought to the table to make sure we can get ahead of this,” Lamont said.
It was the third time in three years that the Port Authority asked the Bond Commission – made up of Lamont and state lawmakers and officials – for more money for the project. Last May as the price of the project increased again to $255.5 million, Kooris promised the commission that the $20 million he was asking for would be the “final tranche” of funding needed for the project.
It became clear last October that wouldn’t be enough. On Friday, Kooris said that since last May, the project has faced “unforeseen conditions” that escalated the cost – specifically “deep obstructions” of boulders and rock ledge 60 feet or more below the waterline.
“We had done some probing, and we had trendlines that showed us where we expected the subsurface conditions to be, but we didn’t find everything,” Kooris said. “And there were some obstructions we just didn’t anticipate.”
Kooris said that now the authority has negotiated with the contractor Kiewit final prices for all but three pieces of the project – leaving them “very comfortable” the additional $30 million from the state would be enough.
Kooris said he was proud that the authority was also able to get Eversource and Ørsted to commit another $23.75 million to the project, which the companies can earn back if they decide to sublease the port.
State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, a member of the Bond Commission who has questioned each increase in state funding, said it was frustrating that the commission has been asked four times for money for this project.
“I wish someone – and there were people who addressed this before you, Mr. Kooris, had the honesty to admit that we, as a state, have never tackled a project this large,” Cheeseman said.
She said it’s difficult for her to support $200 million in state funding for the project while nonprofit social services are struggling for funds, and schools and municipalities need more money.
“Granted, our private partners have put up funds, but they’re also going to make hundreds of millions of dollars from this offshore wind project,” Cheeseman said. “Why shouldn’t they put some money in this? It’s going to allow them to stage, in a cost-effective manner, the windmill turbines they’re going to build.”
Eversource and Ørsted, who have now contributed a total of $98.75 million towards the pier’s reconstruction, received the first turbine components for their South Fork Wind Farm at the pier this week. The partnership, which Eversource is selling its stake in, has a 10-year lease to use the port to stage turbines for three wind projects, with the option to lease it for another seven years.
Lamont said that while Cheeseman and other critics may be upset that Ørsted isn’t putting up more money, the state owns the pier. He said he looks at quasi-public agencies like the Port Authority as a way to get a “broader mix of expertise at the table” than they could with just state employees.
“Here we have a quasi that didn’t necessarily have the appropriate expertise early on, and I think we paid a bit of a price for that, I’ll be blunt about it,” Lamont said. “But you’ve got to be careful, because you’re also talking about conflicts of interest. Sometimes this person has expertise, but there’s a potential conflict, so we’ve got to figure out what is the right balance.”
But Lamont said he stands by the project. He said it’s going to give Connecticut “one of the most important deepwater ports in the entire Northeast.” And he said offshore wind is crucial to the state’s future.
“It’s absolutely vital to us as we try and get more energy generation in a state where our energy usage is going up, and I’ve been struggling to find other ways to fill our need for electricity,” Lamont said.