Airport Quasi Appears Set to Swallow Troubled Connecticut Port Authority

A ship carrying 318-foot blades and nacelles for offshore wind turbines from Denmark waits in the Thames River on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, to be unloaded to the New London State Pier, where the parts will be assembled into turbines for South Fork Wind. (CT Examiner)


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HARTFORD — In response to what appeared a foregone conclusion, there was little testimony on Friday at an Appropriation Committee hearing regarding a section of HB 5047, introduced by the Office of the Governor, that would place the troubled quasi-public Connecticut Port Authority under the authority of the state’s Airport Authority.

The same odd silence was notable at a meeting of the Port Authority on Thursday, when Chair David Kooris asked for feedback on the potential change and heard only a few members of the 15-member board speak, though not all were present. 

Gaffney Feskoe, a member of the Port Authority board, spoke on Thursday and submitted written testimony on Friday opposing the legislation, though he admitted, based on his conversations with state lawmakers, that the switch had probably already been decided.

Kooris said that he wouldn’t characterize the change as a fait accompli.

“But it is a governor’s bill, and so you have to, I think, recognize that there is definitely a certain amount of sway right that the governor’s suggestion would have before the General Assembly, but I don’t think anything is certain,” Kooris said. “I think the bigger likelihood is the potential for edits. It’s definitely possible that amendments are made either at the committee level or at the full General Assembly that might modify what it has in it.”

Feskoe said his sense was that the Airport Authority wasn’t “all that enthusiastic about this combination,” and had asked for more clarity regarding the change.

But Kooris conceded the Airport Authority would do as the General Assembly directs. 

 “Like all quasis, the airport authority will act in accordance with the laws that govern them and if this change is made, that they will comply with it. I don’t know that they have necessarily a strong opinion one way or another,” he said. 

The Port Authority has faced withering scrutiny almost since its launch in 2015, including the resignation of its executive director Evan Matthews in 2019 and its board chair Bonnie Reemsnyder. The agency has also been criticized for the ballooning cost of redeveloping of State Pier, originally set at $93 million, that had grown to $310 million at last count. 

Kooris asked for more feedback about HB 5047 but the room was quiet.

He told members he would submit testimony on Friday but would not speak for the board.

“My testimony is going to say what I believe, which is over the last several years, we’ve struggled to build the depth of capacity necessary. As a standalone quasi, we’ve relied on a series of MOU’s with other entities. We’ve always thought that it would be advantageous to consolidate that back office support in a limited number of places, if not the ideal of one place. This is one way to do that,” he said. “And I appreciate the fact that the administration kind of cares enough about our future and believes that we’ve come far enough that we can be taken up by another entity with continued success and as a strategy to achieve what I think we need to achieve –  this is an approach that’s viable.”

Kooris said that if others opposed the bill, he encouraged them to state their reasons.

Board member Grant Westerson said his primary concern was that the state’s recreational ports, which he said produce millions of dollars in economic activity, would not receive proper attention and marketing compared to the state’s commercial ports in New London, Bridgeport and New Haven. 

“To recreational boating, the bottom line is it is commerce and it’s a big piece of commerce in the state of Connecticut,” he said. “It’s still a pretty significant part of Connecticut’s economy that is dependent upon by a lot of people, a lot of families. I just don’t want to see them get overlooked. 

Feskoe said he agreed with Westerson and added that the small harbors also support the fishing industry.

“That’s one of the reasons that I’m opposed to the combination with the Airport Authority because I don’t know that the airport authority board has the competence to look into things like this … not only fishing, but as Grant pointed out to the recreational boating aspect of it as well.”

But Paul Whitescarver, a member of the board member and executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region, said the merger was “odd” considering that legislation had already been “put in place to keep us on the straight and narrow,” referring to increased oversight by the state Office of Policy and Management that began in July 2020 under the direction of Gov. Ned Lamont. 

Whitescarver said the proposed legislation might have the opposite effect. 

“If you think about it, being subsumed by the airport authority actually provides us more freedom to do things and all the things that they applied over the last several years. Is that not true? I mean, just seems odd that the governor would want to do this,” he said. 

Kooris said the legislation could be viewed as “a pivot away” from the legislation’s work to increase oversight, but it could also be viewed, he said, “as a result of that hard work has positioned us to go along with an entity that has a very positive long standing track record.”

During public comment, Kevin Blacker, a longtime critic of the authority, said that he believed the agency had two missions that should be split: small harbors and deepwater ports. He said the board members were well-suited to economic development associated with small harbors but that problems with the state running the operations had hurt the economic competitiveness of the deep water ports. 

Ulysses Hammond, interim executive director of the authority, told members that if the legislation passes, the staffing and offices of the authority in Old Saybrook would be retained.  

The merger of the two quasi-agencies was under discussion last September according to Kooris at a Sept. 19, 2023 port authority board meeting. The port authority also used airport authority staffing resources in January, 2020. 

Friday’s hearing

The sole speaker in person opposing the bill at the Appropriations Committee hearing in person was Jen Kawecki, managing director of the Connecticut Maritime Trades Association, who also submitted written testimony.

She said the Port Authority was the main conduit to the state’s maritime economy and commerce, with a significant sector represented by recreational boating, marinas and water-dependent businesses – and that the “laser focus” of the agency could be lost if it were subsumed into the Airport Authority. 

Dredging, she said, was key to keeping the state’s waterways, harbors and marinas functioning. 

“Without dredging, the maritime economy will come to a screeching halt,” she said. “This is not the time to turn this vital matter over to an entity that has little or no interest or expertise in it. For these reasons, and others, the Connecticut Marine Trades Association would ask that you keep the Connecticut Port Authority where it is right now as a standalone entity; our maritime economy will benefit as a result. 

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said that the Port Authority had not done significant marketing of the state’s small harbors and marinas, which was among the agency’s responsibilities. 

Osten said the agency also had not awarded the Small Harbor Improvement Projects Program grants annually 

“They’re supposed to by state law go out every year on a competitive basis with $5 million and have only seen three rounds completed,” said Osten.

When asked, Kawecki agreed with Osten’s idea of moving the small harbors and marinas under the state Department of Transportation to make sure marketing was taken care of.

Osten also said that the Port Authority has not addressed dredging small harbors, even after adding $3 million to the budget two years ago to address the issue.

“We have real reason to be concerned on the effectiveness of the port authority and getting projects done,” Osten said. 

Kawecki said that the lack of dredging affects small business owners across the state. 

“These are small businesses, these are families, it’s their employees. If we can’t get the dredging done, it affects all of them not being able to make a living,” she said.

Osten said it was one more reason that the small harbor grants needed to be awarded.