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CT Construction Digest Monday November 25, 2019

The Real Story: House Speaker on competing transportation funding plans VIDEO
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) discusses the competing plans to fund badly needed transportation infrastructure projects throughout the state, including Governor Lamont's (tolls and federal loans), House Democrats (truck-only tolls), and Senate Republicans ( Rainy Day Fund, and borrowing).

Transportation could make Lamont a one-term governor
Greg Bordonaro
ov. Ned Lamont is still in the first year of his first term, but I don’t think it’s too early to say that the issue of transportation could make or break his chances at re-election, if he chooses to pursue a second term.
And it won’t be easy for him to get a win on the politically charged issue, whether his $21-billion transportation infrastructure plan passes, or not.
Lamont is well aware of the political risks he’s taking, and shows no signs of backing down, even if it means he only gets four years in office.
“What you don’t want to do is be so focused on the second term you start trimming your sails and pulling your punches and end up popular but you didn’t get a damn thing done,” Lamont told me in a recent interview. “I am the opposite of that.”
The biggest problem for Lamont, and what may cost him the most politically, has been his inconsistency and poor messaging on tolls. We all remember during the 2018 campaign, Lamont supported a trucks-only tolling plan, but changed his mind soon after being sworn into office. In February, he awkwardly rolled out a broader plan to toll all cars and trucks, and install dozens of gantries across the state, without identifying how the billions of dollars in new revenue would be specifically used.
The flip-flop and lack of clarity cost him dearly, as the plan gained no traction. If Lamont had supported a full-blown tolls plan during the campaign, he may not have won.
Meantime, his second tolling plan — part of the broader CT2030 initiative to fund improvements to highways, mass transit, airports and ports — was instantly batted back by his own party, as Senate Democrats said they wouldn’t support adding “user fees” to the state’s roadways.
I think Lamont’s latest transportation plan is more palatable than the first, but it’s a huge miscalculation to unveil such a wide-scale, second-try initiative without support from your own party.
House Democrats and Senate Republicans have both offered alternative plans to fund infrastructure investments, which wouldn’t raise as much money as Lamont desires, but could pass as a win, or at least a partial victory.
However, the politics are complicated. House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) pitched Lamont’s original trucks-only toll plan, though voters may still be unhappy if they view that as the first step to broader highway user fees.
Republicans’ no-tolls alternative would tap the state’s rainy day fund to finance infrastructure improvements. However, that plan would force Lamont to break another campaign promise to not raid the rainy day fund unless it was needed during an economic downturn.
When asked if he’s worried about how much political capital he’s spending on transportation, Lamont was honest.
The longer-term question, in my mind, is whether an issue this early into Lamont’s tenure can cost him a chance at re-election in 2022.
There are differing views on that.
“I don’t think it’s too early to be thinking about his re-election chances,” said Gary Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. “We are in a situation right now with governors and presidents where it’s the constant campaign anyway. If this fails, it’s not as if people are going to say ‘well, this was back then.’ It’s going to be one of the trademarks of his governorship.”
Roy Occhiogrosso, a former advisor to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, doesn’t necessarily agree with that.
Occhiogrosso said Malloy didn’t start thinking about re-election until he was much deeper into his first term. And the former governor took on two issues early in his tenure — balancing a multibillion-dollar deficit with spending cuts, a major tax increase and union concessions, as well as education reform — that were very difficult to get through the legislature and cost him significant political capital, but ultimately not his chances of winning re-election.
“This is not unusual for an administration in its first year to struggle to get a big issue through the legislature,” Occhiogrosso said. “It’s pretty standard.”
Personally, I think Lamont could be a one-term governor depending on how the transportation issue plays out. And given that he’s 65 and not a lifelong politician, I don’t think that would be the end of the world to him, especially if he thinks he positively impacted the state’s future.

Getting There: Tolls are dead, so now what?
Jim Cameron
Connecticut’s Senate Democrats are gutless weasels. There, I said it.
They have put a stake through the heart of Gov. Ned Lamont’s CT2030 transportation plan, not because they didn’t understand its reasoned approach and necessity, but because they cannot support its funding through tolls. They are more interested in their re-elections than their constituents’ future.
Never mind that, in a closed door caucus, they excoriated their governor in a 20-minute emotional attack that went on without a calming word by their leader, Sen. Martin Looney. They have just rolled over and admitted that NoTollsCT leader Patrick Sasser’s promise of “Support tolls, lose at the polls” has anointed him to lead the state’s political agenda.
Rejecting tolls, how would the Senate Democrats pay for our transportation rebuild? Looney lived up to his name by suggesting marijuana legalization and its taxation. Never mind that the federal government would laugh at suggestions that taxing an illegal drug would pay for their loans to fix roads and bridges.
Why not take half of 1 percent from the state sales tax and dedicate it to transportation? That would bring in $350 million a year and leave an equivalent hole in the General Fund with no way to get filled.
Or how about sports betting? Isn’t that just another tax, this time on the ignorance of those who bet? Where is Sasser’s opposition to those taxes? If he claims that tolls are taxes, aren’t taxes taxes?
Sin taxes should not pay for our transportation. The users of that transportation should pay. Metro-North riders already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the U.S. and those of us who drive already pay gasoline taxes.
Why does everybody want someone else to pay for the service that we use?
Meanwhile, we can kiss goodbye to $125 million a year in free money — the tolls that would have been paid by out-of-state drivers cruising through Connecticut. Should we expect their pot purchases en-route to the casinos to come anywhere near to that lost revenue? Hardly.
The Democrats are out of ideas, so now the minority Republicans get to step in. Sure, they say, let’s take $1.5 billion from the state’s “rainy day fund” and use that. The economy may be firing on all cylinders today, but what happens when the next recession hits? What do we do when it rains? Punt?
And Senate Republican leader Len Fasano, never one to trust the Department of Transportation, would also recreate the Transportation Strategy Board to oversee its projects. As a check and balance or with oversight? With a staff and consulting budget, further bloating the bureaucracy?
The Legislature already oversees the DOT’s planning and budget, and the Transportation Committee regularly quizzes its commissioner on his priorities and projects. Do we really need another layer in decision-making, slowing up projects already decades late in getting underway?
Does the date June 28, 1983, mean anything to our lawmakers? Do they remember that as the date of the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on Interstate 95 in Greenwich, costing three lives? Do they need another such “accident” to underscore the significance of their duties to fund transportation? Or do they just care more about getting re-elected?

E. Hartford Mayor: This Kentucky city offers a roadmap for redeveloping Founders Plaza
Joe Cooper
A little-known city in Kentucky could serve as a blueprint for redeveloping the area surrounding East Hartford’s tallest office tower, according to Mayor Marcia Leclerc.
Leclerc recently traveled to Covington, Ky., for an awards ceremony honoring East Hartford’s Police Department and witnessed the transformation the city of some 40,000 people has undergone thanks to various recent redevelopment projects.
Like East Hartford’s link to downtown Hartford via the Connecticut River and Founders Bridge, Covington is also married to Cincinnati, Ohio, by the Ohio and Licking rivers. Covington in recent years has leveraged the riverfront area near the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge and proximity to Cincinnati to foster investments in transportation infrastructure, entertainment amenities and new and revitalized housing units.
East Hartford, meantime, is planning to achieve a similar vision, first by redeveloping the half-century-old Founders Plaza on Pitkin Street into a mixed-use residential-retail center with up to 2,000 new apartment units. Redeveloping the 12.6-acre property, proponents say, would create a vibrant urban destination that connects the business district along the Connecticut River to the Founders Bridge leading into downtown Hartford.
The town this year has been collaborating with the tower’s landlord, Merchants 99-111 Founders LLC, the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) and Hartford’s Tecton Architects on conceptual plans aimed at making Founders Plaza a “live, work, play destination.”
“The economic prowess [Covington] experienced by developing the Kentucky side of the river and the attributes they’ve brought to that has really springboarded a Cincinnati that is much like Hartford with deterioration of older buildings that needed reinvestment,” Leclerc, a member of CRDA’s board of directors, said at the quasi-public agency’s regular meeting Thursday night.
“We were able to walk from Kentucky over to Cincinnati via a bridge, and I just thought that it had remarkable attributes similar to East Hartford and Hartford and the potential of what could be here,” she said.
Excluding privately held properties, Leclerc said less than 3 percent of raw land is left for development in East Hartford. Founders Plaza, largely blanketed by surface parking lots, offers a significant opportunity to spruce up one of the town’s top assets, she said.
The redevelopment proposal was created out of the town’s 2014 Plan of Conservation and Development, which called for improving and linking together some of East Hartford’s key developments, including Founders Plaza, Rentschler Field and Goodwin College.
CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth said the five minute walk from Founders Plaza to downtown Hartford is a potential draw for investors and prospective residential tenants.
“That is the heart of the grand list in the town of East Hartford, and this is a critical element with the riverfront site being one of the easier ones to develop,” Freimuth said.
As the town and CRDA look to field redevelopment proposals over the coming months, a study will be completed to determine whether or not to extend the life of the tower’s adjoining 333-space parking garage at a cost of about $3.5 million, or demolish it and rebuild. East Hartford already has $500,000 in state Bond Commission funding, secured by CRDA, for the planning and design of a new parking garage at Founders Plaza.
There are 72 low-income neighborhoods in 27 municipalities across Connecticut that have been tagged as OZs, including in East Hartford, Hartford and West Hartford.
Approximately 75 percent of the tower is currently filled with tenants including Jefferson Radiology, Premier Research and Howard Lee Schiff.
The roughly 257,000-square-foot office building in recent years has lost several major tenants, including CareCentrix, Amenta Emma Architects, and administrative offices for Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, all of which relocated to downtown Hartford. Mortgage lender 1st Alliance Lending has also ended operations there last week.

Dead trees are taking their toll on the Department of Transportation’s budget
PAUL HUGHES
The increase in dead and dying trees in Connecticut continues to strain the state Department of Transportation’s tree removal budget.
DOT officials are seeking the approval of the Finance Advisory Committee to reroute $1 million in the department’s 2020 budget to hire more contractors to remove trees. The agency has already spent $3.5 million out of the $4 million in alloted funds.
This is not the first such request. In April, DOT received the FAC’s approval to transfer $4.9 million within its 2019 budget for tree removal because costs were so much higher than anticipated.
The new request to the FAC states additional funding is needed to meet unbudgeted emergency efforts to combat the statewide tree mortality issue.
The panel of state officials and legislators must approve internal budget transfers that exceed $50,000.
Tree mortality is on the rise across Connecticut because of several years of drought conditions, emerald ash borer and gypsy moth infestations, storm damage and other factors.
The DOT specifically cited infestations from the emerald ash borer in its request for the $1 million budget transfer. This invasive insect is inevitably fatal to ash trees. Although ash trees are not a large component of Connecticut’s forests, they are somewhat common along roadways.
Damaged, dead, and diseased trees can fall without warning, potentially causing injury or property damage. There have already been confirmed deaths in Connecticut from falling trees and limbs.
Ash borer put a big dent in many towns’ finances
The town of Oxford’s budget for tree services has quintupled in recent years because of the devastating emerald ash borer infestation.<t-3>
Town officials informed the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities that Oxford’s spending on tree maintenance and removal jumped from $30,000 annually to $150,000.
The emerald ash borer was first detected in Prospect in 2012. Since then, the ravaging, invasive species of beetle has spread to 136 of the state’s 169 cities and towns located in all eight counties, according to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.
In addition to the ash borer, a gypsy moth infestation has contributed to the rise in diseased, dying and dead trees. Drought conditions and storms have also added to increase in tree mortality.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities said the corresponding spike in the cost of tree maintenance and removal is overwhelming some local budgets. It compiled some figures to support an appeal to Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature for state assistance.
The town of Litchfield has seen its tree maintenance budget increase to $105,000 a year. The town removed 73 ash trees last year. In late spring, there were nearly 2,000 ash trees located in the public right of way that needed to be removed.
The town of Bethlehem has been able to clear only two miles of dead or dying trees out of 44 miles of town-maintained roads. With limited resources, local officials reported to CCM that the town can only address trees that pose an imminent threat to public safety.
The town of Winchester has budgeted $20,000 for removal of ash trees that the emerald ash borer has killed.
Officials in the neighboring town of Goshen reported they have just started seeing the effects of the ash borer infestation. Goshen last year spent $43,200 on tree removal contractors and an additional $2,040 on wood disposal.
 
TOWNS AND CITIES are also struggling with unexpected tree removal expenses, according to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
“Municipal officials believe that this crisis shows no sign of abating in Connecticut,” said Joe DeLong, executive director of the statewide association of cities and towns. “This is a bona fide public safety, public health, and environmental crisis for the most affected towns and cities.”
The town of Middlebury has spent $230,000 on cutting and removing 700 dead trees, with an additional $230,000 needed to remove the 700 remaining dead, dying, or diseased trees on roadsides. Ash trees make up a large number of the diseased, dying and dead trees.
“This thing has just overwhelmed us,” said First Selectman Edward St. John.
He said Middlebury had been spending about $50,000 a year on tree maintenance and removal using town crews before costs spiked in recent years.
“I don’t have any money to go beyond our own crew,” St. John said. “We are going to continue because of the hazards. We are the unluckiest people in the world because these ash trees will come down with no warning whatsoever. It isn’t necessarily wind. They will drop on a calm night. God forbid if somebody is driving by in their automobile.”
Nearly 60% of Connecticut is forested, and leafy Middlebury has many tree-lined roads within its 18.5 square miles.
“We’re a rural community, and trees are very much a part of our heritage here. They have been for generations. We love of our trees, but the unsafe trees need to be removed, and the safe trees need to be maintained properly,” St. John said. “I’m not one to cut everything down. That is not our style out here, but we are dealing with a major problem. We are not the only community.”
MAYORS AND FIRST SELECTMEN are asking Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature provide additional state funding for hard hit communities.
“It would be nice if the state gaves towns some help,” Middlebury’s St. John said.
In addition, local officials are asking eligibility be expanded for existing grants for removing infested trees. They also want a more streamlined application process for state permits to burn tree debris.
The Connecticut Conference of Municpialities requested Lamont convene of a working group of state agency commissioners, municipal leaders and utility representatives to collaborate on a comprehensive and sustainable plan to tackle the problem of tree infestation.
St. John said the impasse over state bonding is also depriving towns and cities of a source of funding for tree removal.
The failure of Lamont and legislators to agree to a two-year bonding package on time has already delayed the expected release of first installment of the Town Aid Road grants. Historically, $30 million in payments are made every July and January.
Middlebury has used part its TAR funding to pay for tree maintenance and removal, St. John said.
TREE REMOVAL COSTS have exceeded the DOT’s budgeted assumptions for the last two fiscal years.
The department sought the $4.9 million transfer within its 2019 budget because the $4 million that had been budgeted was insufficient.
The DOT needed $4 million more to hire more contractors to supplement its 10 tree removal crews, and another $900,000 to buy four 70-foot aerial bucket trucks with chippers for its own crews. An agency spokesman said the trucks have been purchased, and they have been deployed to each of the DOT’s four districts
The department has spent $3.5 million of the slightly more than $4 million in available funds for tree removal services since the 2020 fiscal year started on July 1. This sum included $2.8 million that was carried over from the 2019 budget.
The DOT is now projecting another $1.5 million will be required for its tree removal program.
In addition to that $3.5 million, the department reported spending $2 million on staffing salary and overtime related to tree removal through October. The DOT spent $184.3 million on payroll in 2019, including $23.2 million in overtime.
The DOT advised the FAC that an additional $1 million is available for transfer for tree removal due to a delay in filling 443 vacancies. The department is currently authorized to have 3,387 full-time positions.
The FAC is scheduled to consider the transfer request on Dec. 5.

Pratt Street redevelopment project includes renovation of apartments at old Sage-Allen
department store

A financially-troubled apartment complex in the heart of downtown Hartford -- redeveloped in the mid-2000s around the rescued facade of the old Sage-Allen & Co. department store -- is close to another rescue a decade later.A partnership planning a $100 million redevelopment of the Pratt Street corridor plans to acquire the Lofts at Main and Temple, currently mired in a foreclosure, to form the second of three parts of the larger redevelopment project.The Lofts include apartments and storefronts that stand at the top of Pratt Street when looking east from Trumbull Street. To the rear is student housing, once envisioned as bringing college students into downtown.“The property is very important,” Martin J. Kenny, who heads Hartford-based Lexington Partners, one of the development partners said Friday. “It is right in the center of the downtown area.”Lexington with its partners LAZ Investments and Shelbourne Global Solutions LLC would acquire the building after buying a mortgage that was sold last year to an investor by the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority at a steep, $25 million loss to the state.CHFA sold the $42.6 million mortgage for $18.25 million to Elizon DB Transfer Agent in November, 2018. CHFA said this week it no longer wanted to invest more in the apartments. The property had failed to turnaround and the value of the building kept declining.CHFA sold the $42.6 million mortgage for $18.25 million to Elizon DB Transfer Agent in November, 2018. CHFA said this week it no longer wanted to invest more in the apartments. The property had failed to turnaround and the value of the building kept declining.Acquiring the mortgage would give the development partners control of the building. Lexington already took over management of the building in October.“The student housing never really worked,” Kenny said. “It wasn’t executed well. This gives us a chance to start anew.”In the redevelopment, the 42 townhomes of student housing would be converted to 84 "micro-apartments’ and 12 townhomes of market-rate rentals, with a complete redesign.“Have you ever been back there?” Kenny said. “It looks like a jail.”On Thursday, a major obstacle to purchasing the mortgage was removed when the Capital Region Development Authority agreed to convert a $5.4 million loan on the property into an equity investment.The move, CRDA executive director Michael W. Freimuth said, protected the funding -- inherited from the old Capital City Economic Development Authority -- from foreclosure and helped speed up redevelopment efforts.“Our note was holding up a timely transaction, that’s the essence of it,” Freimuth said. “The angst on this is CHFA has already walked away from their value, and we said we we’re just not going to go that same route.”The University of Hartford had been the biggest supporter of the student housing at the Lofts.Beginning in 2005, the university made a commitment to fill 136 beds per year and to spend up to $2 million over ten years to make up for any shortfall. The commitment was fulfilled in eight years. The university once ran a shuttle to its campus, but after 2015, the university no longer actively promoted the site as university housing..Lexington and its partners plan to invest $13 million in renovations that also will include the addition of eight apartments to the front of the complex. They also plan changes in the storefront space that could include a food hall.Kenny said it is possible that the Sage-Allen name could be resurrected in the redevelopment. The old department store’s name is more synonymous with the location than the Lofts at Main and Temple ever was, Kenny said.The developers have sought $3 million from CRDA in state taxpayer-backed loans for this part of development. CRDA has not made a decision.The Lofts is part of a ambitious project -- announced in June -- that includes the addition of apartments on the south side of Pratt Street in buildings owned by Shelbourne and the renovation of the long-shuttered Talcott Plaza parking garage, also owned by Shelbourne.Shelbourne had initially planned to demolish the parking garage. The switch to a renovation is forcing a change to a tax-abatement agreement on other Shelbourne properties downtown that still must be approved by the city council.The developers expect to seek a total of $20 million in state assistance. CRDA has approved $12 million for the first chunk of work on Pratt Street, but the State Bond Commission has yet to vote on it.

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