DOT’s $35 million secret — (shhhh… it’s a parking garage)
Stamford is soon to get a $35 million overhaul of parking at its train station, but city officials and residents have virtually no idea of what’s coming — and they’re unlikely to get it anytime soon.
“The process is a confidential one,” said James Redeker, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation (DOT), which owns and operates the train station and is therefore leading the project. “[The state’s plans] are arrangements that are privately negotiated to get the best deal and not, you know, a public process.”
A public hearing on the state’s plans to replace a dilapidated parking garage at Stamford Transportation Center is scheduled for tonight at 7. But those who attend will be weighing in on plans they haven’t seen from developers whose identities are hidden. In fact, none of that information will be disclosed before the state picks a developer, which is expected to happen by the end of 2012.
The mystery shrouding the process has frustrated local officials as well as commuters, who are anxious to see improvements at Connecticut’s busiest train station, where people board and disembark more than 27,000 times per day, and the waiting list for a monthly parking permit is nearly two years long.
“This is the one opportunity we’re going to have for the next untold number of years to try to fix the parking situation at the second-busiest Metro-North stop that there is,” Randy Skigen, president of Stamford’s Board of Representatives, said in an interview Wednesday.
“It appears that the DOT is going to select somebody without a whole lot of input from the community. … there should be a lot more public notice and disclosure as to exactly what’s going on before they make a final decision.”
“We’ll certainly try [to appeal the process] both through our state legislative delegation and hopefully through the governor’s office,” Skigen said.
Redeker said that the state is using a new process to decide who will receive up to $35 million to build the garage, along with what is known as “transit-oriented development” around it. This could include a mix of residential, office and retail space around the station. The new process the DOT is using establishes a “public-private partnership” where instead of dictating a design to developers, the agency asks them for their own ideas. “Those ideas are proprietary,” Redeker said, and will not be disclosed.
“In the world of public-private partnerships … where we’re asking for ideas and money … they are ideas and they’re worth money,” he said.
Even top Stamford officials seem to know very little about how the state is choosing a developer. The DOT has already selected a group of qualified developers who will be able to submit final proposals Oct. 9. Laure Aubuchon, the city’s director of economic development, said she did not know who those developers are, and she did not expect to see their proposals once they are submitted.
“I presume they think there is going to be more than one public hearing,” Aubuchon said, referring to state transportation officials.
In fact, no other official public hearings will be scheduled to discuss this project, the DOT commissioner said.
Speeding up the process
Public-private partnerships have become a popular method across the country and globally for governments to deal with large-scale infrastructure projects, Redeker said. The goal for such a partnership for Stamford Transportation Center, he said, is to move forward as quickly as possible with improvements that have been discussed for more than a decade.
Commuters deal with worn stairwells, confusing signs throughout the station and an unpleasant atmosphere for drivers as well as pedestrians. But most agree that the most urgent problem is a lack of parking — 858 people are on the waiting list for a $70 monthly permit at the station.
The state’s plan to have a developer demolish a 727-space garage built in 1986 with a new 1,000-space garage wouldn’t fix the situation entirely — but Redeker said better parking management would be included in the plan.
He added that a public-private partnership would save the state money. It would be very expensive for the state to design a new parking garage on its own, he pointed out. Why not instead give private developers an incentive to do it, and the chance to build in the surrounding area?
“The DOT is not a developer,” Redeker said. “We’re trying to get the best possible ideas and investors in, because in the end, it will bring better value and a better final product than if we just went out and tried to do it ourselves.”
Joe McGee, vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County, has argued for such an approach by the DOT for years.
“After 10, 15 years of not doing anything, now we have a major expansion of both [the] station and parking,” he said. “I think it’s great.”
But commuters are concerned that the final project might result in a parking garage that’s farther away from the station than the current one. The DOT’s request for proposals says that the new garage can be as far as a quarter of a mile away from the train station. Many say that is too far a walk for commuters.
“If you already have an hour commute and this is going to add another 10 minutes a day, I can understand how people begin to say, ‘It just adds an additional amount of time to our commute,'” said Aubuchon, Stamford’s economic development director.
Because no one will know what the developers’ plans are, how much say commuters will have in where the garage ultimately goes isn’t clear. Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, is not optimistic.
“Whatever gets said at this public hearing will not matter,” Cameron said. “This valuable piece of state land is going to be re-purposed without any input from commuters.”
Why the secrecy?
In explaining why the identities and plans of developers are secret, Redeker pointed to a section in Connecticut’s public disclosure law that was added two years ago.
The section says that the state can withhold documents related to “the contract award process” if “the public interest in the disclosure of such responses … is outweighed by the public interest in the confidentiality of such responses.”
Redeker said it’s in the public’s interest to keep the plans secret because if they weren’t, “the other guys would be able to steal these ideas,” and the competitive nature of the competitive process would be compromised.
Even disclosing the names of developers would be a problem, Redeker said, because “you can find out the history of what they proposed somewhere else … and they lose their competitive advantage.”
Toni Boucher, a Republican state senator from Wilton and ranking member of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, was surprised to hear Redeker’s explanation.
“That’s really hard to believe,” she said. “Building a garage would be proprietary?”
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