Photo: Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media
BRIDGEPORT — Signaling that good things are happening in and around downtown, the city plans to spend millions on infrastructure projects to accommodate more residents, businesses and visitors.
Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration is preparing to put $15.5 million on the credit card — $12 million for a new Congress Street bridge and $3.5 million for still-to-be-determined new parking facilities.
The latter expense received the most pushback from members of the City Council’s Budget Committee this week. Some on the council are still frustrated with what they consider Team Ganim’s botched rollout of new, high-tech curbside parking meters.
Tom Gill, the mayor’s economic development chief, Nestor Nkwo, the budget director, and Finance Director Ken Flatto need the council’s approval to add the $15.5 million to city’s capital budget, then borrow the money this fall to lock in good interest rates.
Ganim made opening the Congress Street bridge, stuck in the open position since 1997 during his first stint running the city, a priority soon after his re-election in 2015. Spanning the Pequonnock River, the bridge had been an important link between the downtown and East Side.
Rather than replacing the moveable bridge at a cost of $60 million, the city decided to seek federal approval to decommission that portion of the Pequonnock to commercial boat travel and install the far cheaper, $12 million to $15 million fixed structure.
“It’s moving rapidly,” Gill said of the process. He said he expected this month that the U.S. Coast Guard will launch a 60-day public comment period on Bridgeport’s application. If approved, the city will work with U.S. Rep. Jim Himes for congressional approval.
“Is it absolutely necessary?” said Councilman Scott Burns, a budget committee chairman.
“It’s a gateway” between downtown and the East Side and East End, Gill told council members, noting several housing and economic development projects moving forward in those neighborhoods. “But it’s also a safety factor.”
Drivers must instead cross the Pequonnock farther north on East Washington Avenue or farther south on Stratford Avenue. That includes emergency personnel, Gil emphasized.
“That extra time frame could be the difference between life and death,” Gill said. ““Police and fire said it’s critical to them.”
The parking request was more nebulous, and initially $10 million. Though there are several facilities that offer public parking downtown, the city owns only two — a lot adjacent to the Harbor Yard ballpark and a lot across from City Hall on Lyon Terrace.
Gill said his office is “trying to anticipate” future parking needs because of projects soon to come online — new apartments, a beer hall, a comedy club — coupled with Ganim’s efforts to renovate two shuttered historic theaters and a nearby hotel, and to transform the ballpark into an amphitheater.
He also told the budget committee that unidentified companies want to relocate downtown, but need more parking.
“The idea with the ($10 million) would be for the city to create some parking in addition to what developers are doing,” Gill said. That could include temporary lots on public land; small parking garages; or the purchase and renovation of an aging garage by the privately owned City Trust building, Gill said.
“There’s no set plan at this time,” Gill admitted. “We know the need is there.”
Council members pushed back, arguing the proposal seemed rushed and lacked detail.
“I have a problem with this, to be blunt,” Burns said. “We did just go through a disaster with the parking meters and the way it was rolled out.” He wondered why the Ganim administration did not seek the $10 million when the council finalized the capital budget a few months ago.
“I just don’t like it coming to the table today,” added the other committee chairman, Councilwoman Denese Taylor-Moye, who wanted to know more about the businesses Gill was trying to lure downtown. He said he would be willing to discuss it in private.
“$10 million is a lot when there is no plan,” said Councilwoman Aidee Nieves.
Council members also complained that if the city is going to expand its parking efforts downtown beyond the meters, it needs to follow the lead of other municipalities and establish an independent parking authority to manage the system and its budget.
That has also been a criticism of the Ganim administration — that it installed the new parking meters without an authority.
Gill agreed “a city like this should have a parking authority” and said he would push for one to be created.
Ultimately the budget committee agreed to borrow $3.5 million for parking — a compromise suggested by Nieves.
“Our skepticism sometimes stops us from moving forward,” Nieves warned.