Sharply opposing views about New Haven’s Union Station

Hartford — The state has a backward vision for New Haven’s train station, so it needs to hand it over to the city to run it right.

The city can barely shovel out the station after 10 inches of snow or protect workers from falling ice, let alone develop it for the future.

State and city officials, along with a chorus of community activists, offered those starkly competing visions last Monday at a state legislative hearing room and in press interviews, as a dispute over the future of Union Station burst into public view.

The city’s 35-year lease to operate the train station is set to come to an end in June. The state Department of Transportation (DOT) wants to extend the contract three years while it builds a second garage there, then put the management contract out to bid. The Harp administration, saying New Haven rescued a beautiful station slated for demolition and turned it into one of the nation’s busiest, wants the city to run the place indefinitely and see a far different version of the garage built . (Click here for a previous story detailing the city’s arguments about control of the train station and design of the second garage.)

More than a dozen people from New Haven dominated a public hearing of the state legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee in support of a bill to turn the entire station, and its revenues, over to the city, which says it will reinvest in a transportation hub that includes not only more parking, but commercial space and public transportation that mesh with the ongoing efforts to reconnect the Hill to Downtown. New Haven State Rep. Juan Candelaria introduced the bill.

City officials, residents, alternative transportation advocates, architects and attorneys let lawmakers blasted the DOT’s plans instead to put management of the station up for competitive bidding.

Even Peter Standish, vice president of the Massachusetts company that owns the Church Street South apartment complex across from the station,  made the trip to the Capitol to show support for New Haven remaining in control. Standish, of Northland Investment Corp, told legislators that “the city is in a unique position to leverage this asset to effect transformation in the surrounding neighborhood and foster additional smart growth development.”

Susan Godshall, a board member for the New Haven Preservation Trust and a former deputy corporation counsel for the city, gave committee members a history lesson at Monday’s hearing. The first lesson was that in Union Station’s 97-year history, the state has managed it for only a decade, and during that time it was closed and slated for demolition.

“Conn DOT boarded up the building and left it to the pigeons,” she said. “Travelers had to use a nasty underground passageway to reach the trains, and when Gov. [Ella] Grasso visited the station in the late 1970s, she called the tunnel to the train platforms a rat hole.”

Godshall pointed out in her second lesson that since the city’s parking authority took over, first managing the federally funded renovation that restored the station—a renovation she said Conn DOT wanted nothing to do with—and then becoming the long-term lessee, it has become one of the most used stations in the country.

“The station was saved, not by the state’s goodwill, or planning intentions,” she said. “The state’s ownership is an artifact of the railroad industry’s demise. And without federal and local intervention, this treasure would not exist today. Under the city’s ownership the station would become even stronger as a welcoming gateway to the city, a transit center for the 21st century and a thriving anchor for the nearby neighborhoods.”

Committee members heard from supporters of the bill who painted a picture of a state DOT that has been unreceptive to ideas and unwilling to consider that for New Haven the station and its garages have to be more than just a place for out-of-towners to park their cars and catch the train. The historic station, a large community asset, has to be part of the city’s plan for revitalizing the Hill neighborhood, they said.

DOT chief blasts city

DOT Commissioner James Redeker testifying.

DOT Commissioner James Redeker came out swinging at the hearing, painting a picture of a city that doesn’t want to have to compete to keep running the station, doesn’t want to be held accountable for performance measures like customer service, and might be gouging the state for administrative fees.

He told legislators that the soon-to-expire lease agreement is obsolete. He said it fails to protect the interests of the state and its taxpayers, lacking many of the contemporary lease terms for operations, maintenance, capital improvements and customer satisfaction.

In a matter-of-fact tone, he unleashed a litany of alleged shortcomings of the current management of the train station under New Haven Parking Authority, charging that:

• For the past five years expenses have gone up 33 percent, or 6.7 percent each year, while revenues have only gone up 1.9 percent, resulting in a net loss of 53 percent. The station and garages are bringing in $1.2 million less revenue this year than in 2012.

• The administrative fee paid by Conn DOT this year is $981,000; the administrative fee has grown 12 percent in the last five years. The state is charged 68 percent of the total administrative fee for the parking authority. He said the administrative fee represents 18 percent of the operating costs of the train station, suggesting it should be in the five or 10 percent range. “Those fees amount to $5 million in the last five years to the city,” he said.

• Net revenue have declined 18 percent in just past three years; the parking authority made two new PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) payments to the City of New Haven $1.7 million; and the audit report is not transparent about the source of those funds.

• Station food and convenience venues have not changed for a decade under the parking authority’s control, and the current lease offers no incentives or penalties to get the authority to do better.

In addition to these perceived failings, Redeker alleged the following problems occurred within the last week:

• During last Tuesday’s snowstorm, cars, taxis, pedestrians couldn’t access the station because the front of the station wasn’t plowed. Amtrak had to request that the snow be removed.

• On Thursday, ice fell from the west end of the station onto two Amtrak employees and two customers, with no incident report filed by the parking authority.

• The ADA (Americans with Disabilities ACT)-compliant door activator is missing, making the building inaccessible, “a clear civil rights violation.”

• Friday the station entrances and doors were still filthy from the storm even though the storm was on Tuesday.

•  The main ladies room had no hand towels, and the dryer was inoperable.

• Elevator and escalator repairs have taken weeks not hours or days to accomplish

Redeker called those “just a few examples of the lack of responsiveness.”

Redeker also raised questions about the city’s ability to run a profitable station, citing DOT studies that show the station would struggle without state subsidies or a fare hike in perpetuity.

He added that any transfer in ownership would likely have to be approved by the federal government because the renovation was paid for with that entity’s money.

But all that said, he intimated to lawmakers that New Haven Parking Authority’s 35-year history running the station puts it in a good place to compete against anyone vying for the three future management contracts envisioned for Union Station—one for parking and operations management, another for station maintenance and a third for commercial development and customer service.

Roaring back

Mayor Toni Harp: We can’t even have a conversation.

In testimony before the committee, Mayor Toni Harp said the city has made investments in the station including providing a free downtown shuttle with GPS. DOT has promised to put GPS on CT Transit buses in New Haven in response to a request, but first put them in Hartford, and now is running years late in New Haven. (Redeker has repeatedly defended the state’s stewardship of CT Transit bus service in New Haven, which has widely been criticized as broken.)

Harp noted that the city also has provided bike parking and long term lockers at Union Station. She said it wants to do more.

“We think control should stay local and any new building should be designed for residents and the local community,” she said. “Any capital generated at the station or its garages should be reinvested back into neighborhood improvements. We think transferring management and ownership to the city of New Haven is the best investment for the future Union Station.”

Sen Mae Flexer: Where is the disconnect?

The tension between the two competing visions for Union Station was palpable at Monday’s hearing . Sen. Mae Flexer of Danielson asked what had created the disconnect.

“My experience in working with DOT has been limited, but Commissioner Redeker has been visionary in terms of his investment in rail,” Flexer said. “I’m just surprised that the plan they have for your strain station is so dramatically different from what I’d expect.”

Harp said New Haven is just as surprised as Flexer.

“We’ve really worked very hard over three decades to make it what it is today,” she said. “The fact that we can’t even have a real discussion about the design of the the new garage is surprising. We could build the garage on our own through the parking authority. We’ve come to see this as a transportation center, and the state doesn’t want to do it, so we felt that we had to come to the legislature. Hopefully, you can help us maintain control of what we see as an important community asset.”

City economic development officials Matthew Nemerson and Michael Piscatelli said they were also surprised by Redeker’s characterization of the the parking authority’s storm response last week. They disputed his claims that snow was not plowed, pointing out that it was one of the first places cleared in town and was snow free by 5 p.m.. Piscatelli also pointed out that the issue of falling snow was a problem across the state after the storm and not unique to Union Station.

New Haven Parking Authority Chairman Tony Bialecki also disputed Redeker’s position that the state pays a 68 percent administrative fee. He said it is 38 percent.

Redeker argued the city can’t afford to build the $50 million to $70 million new garage without a state subsidy or bonding that would eat up potential revenues.

He did agree on one point with the city: the train station is an important asset.

Bargaining chip?

Before traveling to Hartford to testify, Harp suggested on her “Mayor Monday” program on WNHH radio that Candelaria’s bill could serve as a bargaining chip.

“We would be satisfied with another 30-year lease. But since they want to give a tree-year extension and [then] bid it out —  we feel we have to defend what we’ve done there and what we’ve been able to do for 35 years,” Harp said. “Hopefully this sets the stage for some kind of negotiation with the state or the legislature.”

Harp criticized the state’s “short-sighted vision” of a garage as just a garage. She said the city sees it as an opportunity to create a central transit hub with buses and to create a mini-Grand Central Station with restaurants and stores.

Barnes swings back

Responding to previous coverage of this issue, the governor’s budget chief, Ben Barnes, responded to the city’s position Monday in an interview with the Independent.

He argued that the state has more financial capacity to build a maintain a new garage while investing in upkeep at the old one. The state has been investing in increased train service, he noted.

He also argued that two other nearby locations are more important than the second garage’s site for promoting transit-oriented development — and noted that the city has been slow to build there.

“It’s a little frustrating to me that the city has pointed to our lack of vision as a catalyst for transit-oriented development,” Barnes said. “Meanwhile, have you seen any progress on the Coliseum site?” He added that the city had expected to have Church Street South — the dilapidated complex directly across form the train station — cleared out and in the process of being redeveloped by now.

“If you’re talking about a really important transit-oriented development site, that’s it. They should be working on the front entrance to the train station,” Barnes said.

Barnes also said it makes sense to take a fresh looked at a 35-year-ld lease to see how to improve it. The current contract lacks performance standards, he said. “I’m not sure the parking authority has the moral high ground: The train station’s not in perfect shape. The maintenance of it …  I’m not saying it’s awful. Neither am I saying the best in the world. There have been some concerns about how it’s maintained, as any facility is. We should be holding folks accountable.”

Barnes further questioned why New Haven’s parking authority (which has the contract for managing the station and the current garage) uses revenues from Union Station to support its citywide operations: “That’s above their direct expenses. That’s not the guy who’s mopping the floor. That’s the guy who’s mopping the floor and his boss.”

City development chief Matthew Nemerson argued in a recent interview that that’s one reason to keep the parking authority in charge — to help support citywide operations —and added that the authority still manages to cost the state less than private operators would.

“There’s a good way to find that,” Barnes responded — put the management contract out to bid in three years, as the state proposes. (It seeks to extend the contract until then so as not to interfere with construction of the new garage and operation of the old one.) “Why don’t they just bid? If they’re so great, why are they so scared of a competitive procurement?”

As for the design for the second garage, Barnes said the state is taking the city’s concerns into consideration in negotiations. But he argued that the state doesn’t believe it should become the main hub instead of the Green for bus connections. Part of the reason is cost: “If you want to find a really expensive way of doing something, build six levels of concrete on top of it next to a rail yard.” Part of the reason is location: He questioned whether the station area could handle all that bus congestion.

And he argued that the Green “works pretty well” as a bus transfer hub.

“Some people don’t like it because there are lots of people hanging around. Frankly, that’s a good thing for downtown in my view,” Barnes said.
Paul Bass contributed to this article.

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