Bridgeport to Repair Vandalized Runway; Culprit Still at Large

Dec. 21, 2020

Dec. 21—BRIDGEPORT — Whoever vandalized Igor Sikorsky Memorial Airport's pricey runway safety zone earlier this year has yet to be caught, but the city is moving forward with $1.1 million worth of repairs anyway.

The City Council's Budget Committee this week voted to take $560,000 out of a municipal contingency fund to help cover the cost, though not without some reservations. The transfer must receive final approval from the full council.

"I really don't want to take it out of the contingency — the 'rainy day' fund," said Councilman Matthew McCarthy, who asked finance staff during the teleconference if they could find the money elsewhere.

Nestor Nkwo, the city's budget chief, responded he already tried: "We've been searching every viable option. ... For the last three months, I've looked through every angle."

That included $7 million the state committed — but has yet to release — two years ago for improvements aimed at restoring regular passenger service to the Bridgeport-owned Stratford-based Sikorsky.

The balance of the $1.1 million safety zone fix will be covered by insurance and by federal coronavirus-relief funds provided earlier this year to airports hurt by the economic shock caused by the global pandemic.

The vandalism occurred just before COVID-19 struck Connecticut in mid-March. A vehicle, according to airport staff, drove onto the 300-foot engineered materials arresting system. The EMAS is essentially a weak-walled system of concrete blocks intended to collapse and safely stop aircraft that overshoot the runway.

The mostly federally funded EMAS zone and other safety upgrades initially cost $46 million. Mandated by the Federal Aviation Authority following a 1997 airplane crash that killed eight of the nine people aboard, the improvements were completed in 2016 after years of delays and a long dispute between Bridgeport and Stratford.

The runway with the safety zone remains open and in use.

Airport Manager Michelle Muoio told the budget committee this week that Bridgeport is required to maintain the EMAS system so "the city is, essentially, required to fix it."

"I looked into every possible avenue to find other sources of funding," she added.

Muoio said the Bridgeport police had yet to make an arrest in the case: "It's still an open investigation."

In March, she had stated her belief the damage was done by someone with airport access who "may have intentionally targeted the EMAS system." But this week, Muoio also indicated to the council that, while the airport had security at the time including cameras, apparently the EMAS itself was not under video surveillance.

"It's just a very remote area over there," Muoio said. "We do have standard protocols in place for airports of our size. ... They just did not protect this area."

She said that has since changed: "That area where that system is located is now under video surveillance and it's a very good, high powered night vision camera."

Councilwoman Maria Pereira complained that the airport annually operates with a deficit and matters little to a majority of residents: "This is just continued behavior where we put money into things the people we represent don't care about."

Council President Aidee Nieves warned the budget committee that if the repair work did not go forward, the city could be held liable for negligence should there be an airplane crash with the EMAS in disrepair.

And both Nieves and Muoio argued that, with the city putting finishing touches on an airport master plan, they expect interest from new tenants as well as a possible return of the regular passenger service that went away years ago.

Bridgeport had sought to lure a carrier last year but the deal was never consummated.

Councilman Jorge Cruz said questions about Sikorsky's budget and its future were irrelevant to paying for the vandalism.

"Somebody broke into our house, damaged this property and now we must fix it," he said.


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