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February 27, 2017

"Getting There" - The Bridgeport "Barnum Boondoggle"

I feel sorry for the folks who live in Bridgeport. 

Parts of the city are quite beautiful but others look like the bombed-out South Bronx, especially lots alongside the Metro-North tracks.  The most populous city in the state with residents paying some of the highest taxes really needs help.

But is a proposed $300 million new “Barnum” train station in East Bridgeport the right answer, or just a political boondoggle?

Bridgeport already has a downtown train station right in the business center, next to the new bus station and ferry terminal.  But the new Barnum station, just over a mile away is in the middle of nowhere.  Sure, there are some folks who live nearby, but the proposed station only makes sense if huge new housing and office complexes get built.

It’s this dream of TOD (transit oriented development) that’s the only possible argument for a new station.  If they (CDOT) build it (the station), will they (developers) come?

Others think the station idea is more political than practical.  They point out that it was Governor Malloy who announced plans for the station just weeks before his re-election. At a recent public hearing on the plan one skeptic called it a political payoff to gain votes in a tight campaign.

My sources at CDOT told me they were given scant notice about the Governor’s announcement in July of 2014.  There had been no vetting of the scheme in long range plans.  Even the State Bond Commission was surprised when the Governor slipped a $2.75 million appropriation for initial planning onto its agenda.

Initially the Governor called for a $75 million station with one platform on each side of the local tracks to be open by 2018.  Now the plan has morphed into a $300 million station with center-island platforms, serving both local and express tracks.

There would also be a 500 space parking lot.  But there are no plans for a waiting room, washroom facilities or commuter amenities.

About 25 people turned out at the public hearing, including locals who said that Bridgeport “deserved” this new station.  They said the former glory of the “Brass City” could be restored only with others’ investments.

Some even thought that the new station would be served by Amtrak’s Acela, which doesn’t even stop at the downtown station.  I think the chances of that are slight.  Acela only stops at thriving business centers like Stamford, not rubble-strewn neighborhoods like East Bridgeport.

The most chilling testimony came from Mathew Hallock, of Fairfield.  He reminded the audience about the strange timing of the Governor’s announcement and then wondered aloud who owned the neighboring land that would suddenly appreciate in value.  He even called for the Attorney General to investigate the matter, implying impropriety in the proposal.

Noticeably absent from the public hearing was Mayor Ganim, a man who has served time on federal felony corruption charges.  If the Barnum station was so important for his city, why wasn’t he there?

Metro-North has so many needs:  positive train control, more rail-cars, better and more frequent service, improved safety and affordable fares.  But do we really need to pour $300 million into a Barnum train station built only on the hope that it might encourage development?

This station is far from being a done deal.  There will be more plans, more hearings and, of course, the search for funding.  But as Bridgeport’s own PT Barnum once said:  “There’s a sucker born every minute”.

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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