As session nears end, airport authority bill has strong backing

With less than two weeks remaining in the 2011 General Assembly session, key lawmakers and officials in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration are optimistic about the prospects for creating a new quasi-public authority to operate Bradley International and the state’s five smaller airports.

A bill pending on the Senate calendar would create a new nine-member Connecticut Airport Authority composed of public- and private-sector representatives to replace the existing Bradley Board of Directors.

Unlike the existing board, a largely advisory panel that guided the state Department of Transportation in the administration of Bradley, the new authority will be empowered to hire staff, retain consultants, procure goods and services and enter into contracts, issue bonds and otherwise borrow funds, and apply for federal and state assistance.

“The DOT does a good job, most of the time, building and maintaining roads,” said Sen. Gary D. LeBeau, D-East Hartford, co-chairman of the Commerce Committee. “But they don’t do as good of a job running the business side of the airport.”

LeBeau’s House counterpart, Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-Waterbury, said the authority legislation could be a very effective complement to a statute enacted last year establishing an economic development zone, extending municipal property tax exeptions and state corporation tax credits to certain businesses around Bradley.

During last fall’s campaign, Malloy repeatedly said  that Connecticut was not using its airports–both Bradley and the smaller facilities in Killingly, Groton, Hartford, Oxford and Windham–to their full economic potential.

“We view, particularly Bradley, but the other airports as well as a huge asset to the state,” the governor’s commissioner of Economic and Community Development, Catherine H. Smith, said Wednesday, adding that the administration believes there is potential to grow both commercial and personal travel at all airports.

“The airport and airline industry is extremely competitive and extremely volatile,” Connecticut Business and Industry Association associate counsel Eric Brown, the business lobby’s transportation specialist, said Wednesday, adding that fuel prices and demand for extra flights to new or existing locations are among the most rapidly changing aspects of the business.

The authority bill “is one of a variety of proposals we’ve supported in recent years to make Bradley better able to act and respond like a business,” Brown said.

The authority’s members would be appointed by the governor and top legislative leaders and approved by the full legislature.

The authority’s private-sector appointees would have to be business leaders with expertise in financial planning, budgeting, marketing, master or strategic planning or transportation management.

The panel also would include the commissioners of the state Departments of Transportation and Economic and Community Development, as well as a representative of one of the smaller, state-owned general aviation airports and a member of the Bradley community advisory board.

The authority legislation, which originated in the Commerce Committee, has enjoyed strong bipartisan support to date. The commerce panel, which approved it unanimously, is one of six committees to endorse the measure. The last one, the Appropriations Committee, voted 53-1 in favor of the bill on May 23.

A few Republicans in the Democrat-controlled House and Senate have questioned how unionized DOT employees assigned to work at Bradley would be dealt with if the airport is turned over to a quasi-public authority.

Rep. Pamela Sawyer, R-Bolton, an advocate of the authority plan for Bradley, said she it should be made clear now whether these workers would be reassigned, or whether the authority would be compelled to provide state wages and benefits to all Bradley workers.

Berger said those questions likely would be resolved after any authority legislation is enacted, but said he believes it could be resolved with amicable discussions between the administration, legislature, airport representatives and state employee unions. “It’s our intent to protect unionized members of the DOT,” he said. “There’s no intent to look at this bill as a privatizing tool.”

Sawyer also said that while she believes the current oversight system for Bradley “has held it back from becoming a true economic engine,” she doesn’t believe a quasi-public authority is needed to run the smaller airports. “They really have a different, separate mission.”