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CT Construction Digest Tuesday October 15, 2019

Dan Haar: Looming $600 million gap means tolls are unavoidable
Dan Haar
Hearst Connecticut Media’s series, ‘ Your Money, Your State,’ looks at how state government spends taxpayer money, from stories that reveal wasteful spending to stories that explain why and how spending decisions are made. It's your money, and our goal is to give you a clearer picture of how it is spent. We'd also like to hear from you. Send thoughts, questions and suggestions to yourmoney@hearstmediact.com.
By now we know a modest tolling scheme will be part of the 10-year, $18 billion transportation plan Gov. Ned Lamont is preparing to roll out as soon as this week.
Let’s say that means something in the range of $250 million to $300 million a year. Instead of tolling whole highways from border to border, gantries will rise up at a dozen or more key bridges and other projects. Rates should be 50 cents to $1 each way, with big discounts for in-state pass-holders and rates four to six times higher for big trucks.
The numbers are still being crunched. We don’t know how much these limited tolls will bring from out-of-state drivers and interstate trucks, but that will be a big part of the total, one-third or more.
The picture is more or less what I wrote back in July; it’s all logical if we can’t pass broad highway tolling.
Politically it’s a hard sell as we saw last spring. Democrats in the Senate didn’t have the guts to bring a vote and Republicans in both chambers favored borrowing, with higher long-term costs, while cutting non-transportation borrowing — which Lamont is already doing with or without tolls.
Financially, tolling is as close to a must-do as anything I can imagine in government spending. Here’s the big picture: Connecticut already borrows more for transportation projects than any other state except Rhode Island. Even without stepped-up borrowing, debt payments are set to rise more than $300 million a year in the next five years, to more than $1 billion a year.
The need for more highway and transit spending, meanwhile, seems not to be in dispute — at least another $300 million a year to actually improve more things instead of just catching up with repairs. And revenues to pay for all this are flat.
So we’re looking at a gap in the next five years of $600 million a year or so — more if federal dollars decline, less if we see a federal infrastructure program with actual teeth.
The much ballyhooed federal Build America Bureau program of low-interest, deferred borrowing is perfectly lovely. I’m glad Ryan Drajewicz, Lamont’s chief of staff, and Sen. Len Fasano, the GOP Senate leader, trekked down to DC to hear about it this summer. But it does not make up anything close to the difference. At best, it might eventually save Connecticut a few tens of millions of dollars a year — great to have, not even remotely enough to fill the coming gap.
Moderate Republicans who know there’s no way around tolls (they know who they are) and wavering Democrats who can’t stand up for a hard truth will hide in the upper reaches of the Capitol dome, hoping Lamont doesn’t run into them when he ascends for his next religious greeting from on high.
For the rest of us, here’s a look at the numbers. They show why there is not a better alternative than modest tolls for specific projects — other than full highway tolling, which Lamont can’t get adopted because of those aforementioned lawmakers hiding in the dome.
Debt payments on bonds to finance major projects amount to $690 million this year. That figure is steadily rising up to $1.01 billion in 2024, a 46 percent jump, assuming we keep borrowing to cover the same yearly spending.
Connecticut already finances about half its transportation funding through borrowing. Forty-three percent, according to a Consumer Reports analysis of federal data that appears to leave some borrowing out. Only Rhode Island borrows a bigger share. A quick look at the federal data shows states such as North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Texas rely on little or even no borrowing.
Connecticut raises and spends about $1.7 billion a year in its so-called special transportation fund. I’m not sure what’s so special about it but regardless, the main sources of revenue are fuel taxes ($825 million); motor vehicle fees, use taxes and other receipts ($510 million); and the sales tax on motor vehicles ($415 million this year).
Revenue for the STF, as the fund is known, is expected to be flat over the next five years, with slight increases in taxes and fees based on more activity and inflation, and slight decreases in fuels taxes due to efficiency gains and, as The CT Mirror’s Jan Ellen Speigel wrote, the rise of electric vehicles. Taxing electric vehicles won’t solve the problem.
Contrary to popular belief, the STF does not pay directly for capital projects such as road and bridge improvements. It pays for the regular operations of the departments of Motor Vehicles and Transportation, and it pays for debt on the capital spending. Other than debt, the projected 5-year increase amounts to $173 million, or 17 percent — much of that, you guessed it, in pension and health cost hikes.
Those regular operations total $1 billion this year, including pay and benefits in the two departments ($475 million); bus and rail operations ($400 million); and assorted other expenses. Those costs can be cut, of course, but former Gov. Dannel Malloy already eliminated thousands of state jobs, many in those departments, and cut the rate of spending growth dramatically. He also cut pension and health benefits.
Connecticut borrowed an average of $730 million a year for transportation projects in each of the last five years, not including refinancing. The average “true interest rate” was 3.34 percent.
The federal Build America Bureau borrowing rates are now just a hair under 2 percent. They rise and fall with long-term Treasury rates. Let’s assume the difference will stay about the same, 1.4 percentage points. That’s $10 million a year on $700 million in borrowing. The program allows for deferred interest and principal payments until after a project is done, and that saves more money still, though it extends the borrowing out many years, as The CT Mirror’s Keith Phaneuf pointed out.
If you extend the savings from that program over the entire transportation debt, it can amount to much more than the $10 million a year. But the program has limits on projects that qualify and allows borrowing for only 33 percent of a project’s cost. Some projects are mostly state financed. Zero chance it can make up the huge gap.
Now let’s look at the actual capital spending. Connecticut spent an average of $793 million a year in the previous three years and federal spending amounted to a steady $750 million. That’s $1.54 billion a year — without fixing the Waterbury mixmaster, without fixing the Hartford viaduct, without fixing the backup on I-95 in Bridgeport, without fixing the deficient and old I-95 bridges in Norwalk and elsewhere, without replacing the 1943 span of the Gold Star Bridge, and without replacing the movable, Metro North bridges that routinely cause 20-minute delays.
Fasano rightly wants to wait to make a decision on tolls until all the Build America numbers and all the project priorities are available. “I don’t know what number we’re solving for, so if you don’t know what number you’re solving for, it’s very tough to do,” Fasano said.
He and other Republicans raise the issues of trust and mismanagement as reasons not to launch tolls. He’s right that Malloy and General Assembly Democrats spent money without a fully developed plan in place and he’s right that money meant for the STF has been diverted. In the budget for this year and next year, for example, $171 million of the motor vehicle sales tax that was supposed to go to the transportation fund was diverted back to the general fund.
In 2014, Malloy swept $76.5 million from the fund. Fasano’s office gave me a list amounting to $681 million in diversions to the general fund since 2014. But in that time, more than $2 billion not earmarked for the fund in statute has been moved to the fund.
How can that be? A big hunk of the fuels tax and until recently, no part of the motor vehicles sales tax, was required to be spent on transportation under state law.
Let’s call that a technicality and say the folks in charge should knock off the true diversions, which a flawed Constitutional amendment adopted last year does not address. That’s still not a reason to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars more when tolls can raise the same money at less than half the cost to taxpayers. Lamont’s plan needs to spell out the spending side as well as the revenue side in an easy-to-digest way. Malloy never did that and Lamont didn’t do it with his first tolls proposal. And so we wait.“I have the responsibility to see if there’s another way of doing this and once I see what they’re doing, I can do that,” Fasano said of considering Lamont’s plan.
He’s right to want to see the numbers in detail. I hope he’s right about avoiding tolls but it’s hard to imagine, looking at the numbers. That $600 million gap will loom large.
As Sen. Carlo Leone, a tolls proponent and co-chairman of the General Assembly’s transportation committee put it, “The want and the reality is not equal at the moment.”

Aquarion begins water main project in Newtown
Katrina Koerting
NEWTOWN — Work will begin on a water main replacement on Church Hill Road on Tuesday, Aquarion Water Company announced Monday.
The work is expected to be completed by mid-December and will replace 2,100 feet of water main between Queen Street and the railroad overpass near Wall Road.
The project is part of an ongoing effort to improve Aquarion’s water distribution system and to ensure the highest-quality water. It will also help reduce leaks and water main breaks that can disrupt service, according to Aquarion’s news release.
Customers in the area may experience temporary service disruptions or discolored water while the work is happening. The company recommends customers store water in their refrigerators for drinking and cooking in case this happens. People should hold off washing their laundry if their water is discolored. Customers should run their cold-water faucets until the water appears clear before using their water again, according to the release.
“We greatly appreciate residents’ patience during this project,” said Michael Hiltz, Aquarion’s Manager of Utility Programs. “We will work closely with our customers, contractors, and town officials to coordinate the work and minimize any disruptions.”
Motorists might also see minor traffic delays in the area because of the construction and possible detours between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Rondano Construction, which is based in Norwalk, will be serving as the contractor for the water main replacement project.
Aquarion encourages customers to sign up for its free CodeRED notification system at www.aquarionwater.com/codered so they will know of any work that will affect them.

Gregory Seay
omer Hicks has held various jobs over the years, including as a bartender and painter, but her latest in the construction industry has been the most satisfying, she said.“I love it,’’ said Hicks, 38, of the Terryville section of Plymouth, who started a year ago as a laborer — assisting carpenters, electricians and other building-tradespeople — after completing a state-funded pre-apprenticeship training.
“I love that it’s like going to the gym,’’ she said. “When you see what you’ve completed, you can look back and say, ‘I did that.’ ”
Hicks’ entry into the male-dominated construction industry is more common these days.
As a result, in recent years, private design, engineering and contracting firms, construction trade groups, labor unions and nonprofit workforce-development agencies have mounted a full-court press to identify and train more women for the industry.
In particular, employers and others involved in recruiting, training and supporting women in the sector point to a steady migration of females into posts that don’t involve field work, such as design and engineering; project management; accounting; and marketing.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows a higher percentage of women in Connecticut construction jobs. For example, women held 17.8 percent of the 61,647 construction jobs that existed in the state last year vs. occupying 17 percent of construction jobs in 2008 and 15.6 percent in 1998.
Yet, some observers say women, as well as ethnic minorities, remain underrepresented in Connecticut and U.S. building trades amid greater legal and social emphasis on fairness in hiring and training.
“I believe that as women become more aware of the opportunities that are there, the percentages are going to increase,’’ said Yolanda Rivera, who has spent the past 20 years filling Connecticut’s trades pipeline as director of construction-sector initiatives at Capital Workforce Partners (CWP) in Hartford.
Rhode Island’s Gilbane Building Co., a builder of public and private projects in Connecticut and the Northeast, says more women than ever are among its staff — and not just in the field. John Hawley, vice president in Gilbane’s Glastonbury office, said his company has extended its job recruiting to female college students in majors such as mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as accounting and marketing.
Women, says Amy R. Blackwood, executive director of the John J. Driscoll United Labor Agency (ULA) and community engagement director for the CT AFL-CIO, are a deep talent pool that could benefit the building-trades sector.
“You’ve got a retiring workforce and an untapped workforce that’s never had an opportunity,’’ Blackwood said.
In 2016, the CT State Building Trades, in concert with ULA, launched “Building Pathways CT,’’ to put women and men through seven weeks of pre-apprenticeship training to qualify them to work in construction. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island have similar programs.
Since Pathways’ launch, nearly nine of every 10 adults who completed the training program got a construction job, she said.
Hicks is one of those. The divorced mother of three held various past jobs, including 13 years as a bartender and 3½ years as a house painter. She briefly worked for a roofing installer and as a roadway “flagman.’’
“My best friend … heard about the [Pathways] program,’’ Hicks said. “She wanted to be a carpenter. We had planned to go through the union, but we didn’t know how to get our butts in the door.’’
Since Hicks landed in the Pathways program in 2018, she has worked as a laborer at three in-state jobs sites, including remediating a former General Electric industrial site in Bridgeport into ballfields.
Architect Laura Cruickshank is UConn’s master planner, overseeing dozens of the college’s building projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars in her 16 years there, and even more in her 44-year career that included a stop as Yale’s architect.
Although UConn has stiff standards for female and minority participation in campus building projects, Cruickshank says she’s still dismayed at the relatively small number of women she encounters on UConn work sites. She says she makes it a point to stop and greet them.
“I’m always amazed women aren’t further along,’’ she said.
Early engagement with girls and young women while they’re still in school about professional- and skilled-labor options in construction and building trades would enhance their diversity, Cruickshank said.
“These are all doable things,’’ Cruickshank said.
Meantime, despite their growing presence in a field predominated by males, female construction workers say they rarely, if ever, encounter hostile treatment or attitudes from their male counterparts.
Hicks says skills competency is the prime yardstick for garnering respect on the job site. She says her male co-workers have been helpful to her.
“I’ve got to say 99 percent of the guys have been absolutely wonderful,’’ she said.
“My women have problems because they’re dealing with systemic problems with poverty,’’ Blackwood said, such as access to adequate housing, transportation and social services.
Finishing journeyperson Tatiana Southwick met her glazier husband on a job site in 2014. They married a year later. Finishing work entails hanging sheetrock, then sealing and painting interior walls.
Born in New Jersey but with Puerto Rican roots, Southwick, 38, originally entered college with plans to become a veterinarian. But she later pivoted and took an office job to help care for her ailing mother.
In 2005, she spied a training program that CWP’s Rivera oversaw to prepare women and men for construction jobs. Southwick and two other women were in the co-ed class, but after seven weeks she was the only female to graduate.
Today, she’s a finishing trades apprentice instructor for District Council 11 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in Middletown, a position rarely, if ever, held by a woman.
Other outward signs of industry acceptance of women will appear as more females like Southwick become journeypeople and instructors, Rivera and Blackwood say, or turn up on job sites as architects, engineers and project superintendents.
Women bring special talents to construction, Southwick said.
“There’s an attention to detail that I feel women are a little sharper at,’’ she said.
“I tell them to come on down,’’ she said. “But I do warn them that construction isn’t for everyone, no matter the gender.’’

Middletown eyes riverfront development
Matt Pilon
oseph Samolis, Middletown’s director of planning, conservation and development, finds himself staring down a long-awaited opportunity.
Five acres of city-owned land abutting the Connecticut River could soon be open for redevelopment, and Middletown officials may formally seek development proposals next year, Samolis said.
While the 100 River Road property — home to an aging sewage pumping station located a third-of-a-mile south of the Mattabesett Canoe Club restaurant — is in a flood zone, which limits development options, Samolis said it could house a public park with a music stage, or perhaps even a public dock that would allow more people to visit the nearby downtown area by boat.
“Light commercial activity” could also be possible, he said.
“Those private parcels, we think, will start to see more interest,” he said. “Economic development, I think, will flourish.”
The city in recent years has assessed redevelopment possibilities for several riverfront properties just south of the pumping station.
One is the “OMO site” at 50 Walnut St., which had been historically used as a dump, but was remediated five years ago.
A 2014 planning report said the site could house riverfront parking, a public market, performance spaces, art galleries, and commercial space near Route 9. The property owner also suggested a rooftop restaurant overlooking the water, according to the report.
The 1960s-era River Road pumping station is scheduled to be decommissioned by late winter. It’s being replaced by a new higher-capacity pumping station under construction on East Main Street.
The new facility, part of a $60 million project, will make it possible to route Middletown’s sewage several miles north to a Cromwell treatment facility owned by the Mattabassett District.
Middletown plans to pursue state brownfield grants to remediate the old pumping station site. After that, the city will issue a development request for proposals, possibly by next summer, Samolis said.
Meanwhile, the state is in the planning stages of a project that would redesign a key, heavily trafficked Route 9 intersection that splits the riverfront from downtown Middletown.

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