Responding to commuters, Malloy and DOT create ‘advisory panel’ for garage

Speaking at the Chamber of Commerce in his hometown of Stamford yesterday, Gov. Dannel Malloy announced that the state Department of Transportation would form an “advisory panel” to counsel the agency on plans to replace an aging parking garage at the city’s train station, the state’s busiest.

“The goal of this project is to provide the commuters of the Stamford region with a state-of-the-art parking structure that will deliver more parking, accessibility for commuters and travelers of all modes,” Malloy said in a statement.

The announcement follows a story Thursday on The Mirror’s website. The story reported heavy criticism from commuters, state legislators and Stamford officials, all of whom felt pushed aside as the DOT prepares to accept proposals from developers who will not be named, and whose proposals will remain a secret, until a final one is picked at the end of the year. Because the state owns and operates the train station, the DOT is leading the project.

“That’s our garage,” state Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, told DOT officials at a public hearing at Stamford High last week. “Frankly, it doesn’t belong to the state, it doesn’t belong to the developers.” Dozens more testified at the hearing, the only one scheduled about the $35 million project. Public comments are due by Oct. 5, and developers’ proposals are due four days later.

In an interview, DOT Commissioner James Redeker said the five-member advisory panel would include representatives of commuters, Stamford residents and businesses. Redeker said he decided to create the panel as “a follow-up to our commitment to open up communication and make sure that customer interests come first.”

“It is a practice that has been used by other similar-type projects for public-private partnerships,” Redeker added, referring to the state’s new approach, in which the private sector will have an unprecedented role in designing the garage and suggesting a mix of retail, office and residential developments nearby. The significant design role is the reason Redeker says developers’ identities and proposals must remain secret, in order to protect their competitive advantage.

The advisory panel will get to review portions of the developers’ proposals as they counsel the DOT, Redeker said. While financial bids will be sealed, panel members should be able to see where the developers have decided to locate the new, 1,000-space garage that will replace the current 727-space parking deck. The location of the garage has been of the greatest concern to commuters, since the state issued guidelines earlier this year allowing developers to suggest locating the garage as far as a quarter-mile from the station.

“Occasionally, I have commuted with crutches, with a cast, and I see a lot of people struggling with double-strollers, children … and everybody’s always carrying something,” Stamford resident Esther Giordano testified at the hearing last week. “So walking a quarter-mile, forget it. That’s outrageous.”

Giordano is currently on the waiting list — along with 857 others — for a $70 monthly parking permit at the station. It is expected to take about two years for those at the bottom of the list to get a permit.

Redeker said he is still working out details on when and how to select the members of the advisory panel. “It’ll be a lot of work,” he said.

Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, called the announcement “a very important first step to making sure that the interests of all the stakeholders are heard and considered.”

“It’s still a somewhat opaque process,” Cameron said. “It’s not going to be open and transparent, but it sounds like it’s not going to be completely hidden, either.”

The DOT will also be passing out flyers at Stamford Transportation Center through early next week asking commuters for their input on the project. Cameron said members of the Commuter Rail Council would distribute their own flyers as well.

A radio version of this story will be aired today on WNPR.