HARTFORD, CT — Every spring, the General Assembly considers a bill to give away, sell, or swap state-owned land.
This year’s bill includes several giveaways that environmentalists are questioning, and at least one section seeks to end the feud between the City of New Haven and the state over control of Union Station by including language that would convey it to the city for $1 million. Language in the original bill would have conveyed the property to the city for $1.
The Government Administration and Elections Committee voted 17-0 Monday to move the bill along, though several members expressed reservations about the Union Station project.
The vote came after a five-hour, closed-door caucus.
Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, vice chair of the committee, said he voted in favor of the conveyance bill in the interest of moving it out of committee, but he had concerns about the Union Station project which he said was the subject of “very intense discussion” and that he wanted to see where the issue ends up before delivering a final vote on the bill.
The city’s 35-year lease to operate the train station comes to an end in June.
The state Department of Transportation wants to extend the lease three more years while it builds a second garage and then put the management contract for the station out to bid. New Haven Mayor Toni Harp has objected to the state’s attempts to control the property.
Harp has said New Haven rescued the station from demolition and turned it into an economic engine for the city.
Typically, the annual conveyance bill focuses more on properties surrounding state parks and forests. It’s the reason why environmentalists are pushing for approval of an amendment to the state constitution to make the process more transparent and open to public input.
Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, said he didn’t see anything unusual about the rail line project being grouped into a bill that is usually more about forest lands, stating it meets the same requirements — being state-owned land.
“That’s how the system works,” was Candelaria’s simple response to a question about the process.
The issue of who should operate the train station — at least for now — remains a contentious one.
Candelaria said in written testimony, “Other stations around the state let the host city run the station and even keep the parking revenue for their general fund. Some even limit parking to only City residents. New Haven does not.
“We run a good service for both our residents and the rest of the state, and we are making it better each year. Our proposal is that we be allowed to continue,” Candelaria said.
At a public hearing last Monday on the issue, state and city officials from New Haven stated their cases.
From the state’s side, Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker testified that his department “is strongly opposed to the conveyance of Union Station and its associated parking garage to the City of New Haven and/or New Haven Parking Authority as detailed in Section 8 of H.B. 7278.”
“The Connecticut rail system is the backbone of the state’s economy. The New Haven Line is the busiest rail line in the nation, is the principal rail line in the statewide system, moving more than 140,000 people daily and 41 million people annually,” Redeker said.
He added: “The proposed transfer of the station and the parking garage to the City/NHPA would shift the focus from the core transportation mission and divert revenue away from the rail and transit hub at a time when it is needed most,” Redeker added.
Numerous New Haven officials, including Harp, argued back at the public hearing that city — not the state — would do a better job managing the station.
And this Monday, Laurence Grotheer, Harp’s spokesperson, issued a new statement reiterating the city’s position that it was the best entity to run the train station.
“For the last three years, the city’s position has been to extend and improve this publicly-audited, joint-governance relationship,” Grotheer said. “It has become clear that this is not the priority of the Department of Transportation.”
Grotheer continued: “Their proposal is for a three-year extension of the current, imperfect lease to cover the construction of a second garage, and then a dissolution of the joint-governance structure to bid individual parts of the station and parking for management contracts.
“We believe that the NHPA has a vision for the future of Union Station that addresses community needs while investing in a vibrant station and a future-facing transportation network,” Grotheer said. “Particularly considering the plans for the proposed garage we are concerned that this vision will not be shared if this joint-governance ends.”
The Connecticut Forest & Park Association opposed several sections to the bill. One that would give about 8.46 acres of Shade Swamp Sanctuary Wildlife Management Area to the town of Farmington to use as a cemetery for no money. The committee took that provision out of the bill.
It also opposed the conveyance of land from the Babcock Wildlife Management Area in Colchester to Jamie and Ann Fellows for $10,000. The committee kept that part in.
Another section would convey 10 acres of land to the city of Groton. The committee removed that provision.