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CT Construction Digest Monday December 16, 2019

Wednesday December 18 State Bond Commission Agenda

State putting brakes on $5 billion I-84 viaduct replacement to study how project can work with solving other transportation troubles in Hartford area
Kenneth R. Gosselin
In a startling shift, the state Department of Transportation is putting the brakes on the I-84 viaduct replacement project in Hartford and plans to broaden the scope of its study to better coordinate with other transportation projects in the Hartford area.The projects include the potential relocation of the I-84/I-91 interchange, a notorious bottleneck, and the sprawling “mixmaster” in East Hartford, all in hopes of improving transportation and fostering economic development.The $5 billion viaduct replacement is still on the table, but DOT planners say the study now also will give more emphasis to options for travel by rail, the CTfastrak busway and bicycle. Travel alternatives to motor vehicles are seen as one way to ease congestion on the state’s highways.Tunnels, pushed for several years by U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-East Hartford, also would gain renewed consideration. Larson repeatedly has pressed the state to be more bold in thinking about how to replace the viaduct and interchange, using tunnels that would reconnect the city with its riverfront and solve the interchange bottleneck.DOT planners say the broader study would take 2 or 3 years, and cost an estimated $3 million to $5 million. The major change in course is possible, they say, because $60 million in repairs to the viaduct — to be completed by the end of next year — will extend the life of the viaduct to 2040.In addition, no funding has yet been committed to the viaduct replacement — a reality that has hung over the project for years — and no change is expected in at least the immediate future.“I think Congressman Larson will like the fact that we are looking at this bigger,” Andy A. Fesenmeyer, a DOT project manager, said. “His plan, he always said, was big and ours, I think, arguably wasn’t big enough maybe. I think we’re looking at the bigger picture now, which is, I think, one of the things he didn’t think we weren’t doing that well.”“So whether it’s a tunnel or it isn’t a tunnel, when he sees what is being looked at globally with East Hartford and Hartford and the mobility of the whole area, I think it’s a positive,” Fesenmeyer said.The change in scope also comes as the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont has made relieving highway congestion a pillar of its transportation improvement plans.
Larson praised the move Friday, noting that all options have to be explored for the region.
“We cannot continue to make the same mistakes,” Larson said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it is critical that we get it right for the people who have to live with our decisions.”Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said the shift in focus would certainly delay the viaduct replacement.“I hope that this study stays focused on the same key priorities for Hartford," Bronin said, “reconnecting neighborhoods, reconnecting Hartford to the riverfront and looking beyond highways and vehicles to the full range of transportation options.”The strategic change was outlined by the DOT Friday before the public advisory committee on the I-84 Hartford Project, and the change took some committee members by surprise. The committee includes neighborhood groups, local officials, advocacy groups and businesses.“I’m disappointed that, oh my god, you’re going another 20 years out again,” Jackie McKinney, president of the ArtSpace Resident Association in Hartford and a committee member, said. “It’s hard to get excited about this because it’s just a whole bunch of delays.”But McKinney — and others who expressed disappointment — acknowledged that more overall planning would ultimately benefit the area.“If you look at this from a really pragmatic, practical, long-term way — yes, it’s taking forever; yes, some pieces of it may not happen; yes, it’s going to cause a delay," Robert Painter, a Harford resident and longtime committee member, said. “But it’s the right way to do it."Painter, a former member of the city council, said a more comprehensive approach could ease traffic congestion in downtown Hartford and minimize disruptions to businesses when the viaduct is replaced.The change will take the viaduct project from a highway replacement to a regional plan for improving transportation. The area of study has yet to be determined but it would roughly stretch from Flatbush Avenue in Hartford east to beyond the highway “mixmaster” in East Hartford; north beyond Riverside Park in Hartford and south beyond Hartford’s Coltsville complex.In East Hartford, Mayor Marcia Leclerc welcomed the expanded study, noting that the “mixmaster” divides the town and takes up land better used for economic development.“We’ve always said the east side of the river should be as important to the future of the region as Hartford,” Leclerc said.The state has been studying and preparing to seek approval and funding for the viaduct replacement for nearly six years. Construction wasn’t anticipated until the late 2020s or early 2030s.The DOT has said its preferred option is lowering the I-84 viaduct to just below grade, a strategy that would reconnect Hartford neighborhoods severed when the highway sliced through the city in the late 1960s.Kevin J. Burnham, a DOT transportation engineer on the project, said it is possible that the viaduct replacement could contain elements of both a tunnel and a lowered highway.Fesenmeyer said the work on replacing the viaduct won’t be lost but become part of the larger study. The work had included probable relocation routes for rail and the busway as well as a new train and bus center west of Hartford’s Union Station.“We’ve done so much work for Hartford that we see that work just kind of rolling into here and kind of parked there and we start focusing on some areas that we haven’t looked at that much,” Fesenmeyer said.Burnham said the state is now focused on a broader array of transportation options.“Mobility is more than just highway,” Burnham said. “It is getting the success of the Hartford Line and what is going on with fastrak. Millenials are getting into different habits of transportation. We want to be looking forward and getting ahead of that and not just solving one highway problem.”The DOT had hoped to receive federal approval for the viaduct replacement by the end of 2021. Final designs would have then be drawn up, funding would have to be sought and land in the path of the lowered highway would have to be acquired, which could take years.The viaduct replacement will now be pushed back, the DOT says, likely frustrating those who saw a solution within reach. Even so, there had been community and elected leaders who were pushing for a more comprehensive approach.Larson’s tunnel plan is pricey, easily topping $10 billion and perhaps as much as $50 billion. But some in Hartford have said a tunnel would be the ideal solution for reconnecting the city. That would be particularly true in the area where I-84 now divides Bushnell Park and Asylum Hill.The DOT already has been studying options for possibly relocating the I-84/I-91 interchange.New areas of study would incorporate the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile walking and biking trail stretching from Maine to Florida. In Connecticut, East Hartford and Hartford still present vexing gaps.“We haven’t done much on the East Hartford side, so we have a lot of catching up to do with the mixmaster,” Fesenmeyer said. “How can we improve mobility and just cleaning the whole thing up and how does that play in with a tunnel?”One element of Larson’s vision for a tunnel would take I-84 under the river and into East Hartford.

Architect picked for New Fairfield school construction
Kendra Baker
NEW FAIRFIELD — An architectural firm has been selected for the town’s $113.4 million school construction plan.
After funding for an $84.2 million new high school and a $29.2 million early learning academy passed by taxpayer vote back in October, the town has been moving forward to bring the projects to fruition.
“The Permanent Building Committee has been meeting very frequently since the passage of the referendum,” Rich Sanzo, the school district’s business and operations director, said Friday.
After receiving 15 qualification packages from different firms for architectural and engineering services, the committee narrowed down the list and interviewed four firms last Tuesday.
Based on qualifications and fees, Sanzo said, the committee selected Hartford-based JCJ Architecture to provide services for the two school projects.
School officials have said the existing high school and Consolidated School are in poor condition and need millions of dollars worth of upgrades.
New Fairfield residents had mixed reactions to the plans. Some felt the projects were being rushed, while others thought the schools were in urgent need of improvements.
The learning academy project will involve 44,000- square-feet of new construction, modifications to the Meeting House Hill School, replacement of the bus lot and demolition of the existing Consolidated Elementary School.
Preschool through first grade would move out of Consolidated School and into the addition, while second graders would go into an existing wing at Meeting House.
The estimated cost of the learning academy project is $29,185,907. The town expects a 38 percent state reimbursement for the learning academy project, which will leave a $18,352,160 total cost to the town.
Work on the high school will involve 143,000-square-feet of new construction, field replacements, locker room renovations and Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades.The estimated cost of the high school project is $84,214,908, and the town expects a 27.86 percent state reimbursement — leaving a $61,638,572 total cost to the town.
First Selectman Pat Del Monaco has said the building projects will mean higher taxes for New Fairfield residents — rising to 9 percent over the next five years before decreasing.The Permanent Building Committee is in the process of finalizing contracts with JCJ Architecture, Sanzo said.
It has also issued requests for qualifications and proposals for owner’s representative services, which he said will “serve as project manager for the projects as part of the consultant team.”
Sanzo said the Permanent Building Committee is scheduled to meet with two firms — Colliers Project Leaders and the Morganti Group — for those services this Tuesday, and is expected to make a selection after next Tuesday.
“With the architect selection nearly completed and the owner’s representative selection hopefully being completed before the new year, we expect to have a kick-off meeting with the architects in January,” Sanzo said.
“Shortly after that, we’ll be sharing with the community different opportunities for them to get involved in visioning exercises related to the design of the buildings. More information on that will be released after the new year,” he said.

Groton eyes March as start date for construction of new elementary schools
Kimberly Drelich
Groton — Planning for the district's two new elementary schools is on track and, if all goes according to plan, construction would begin in March, said Superintendent Michael Graner.
Last week, the Board of Education approved the final plans and cost estimates for the new elementary schools to be built on the site of Cutler Arts and Humanities Magnet Middle School, and the architect at the state Department of Administrative Services reviewed the plans.
The state is slated to review in mid-January the plans for the elementary school to be located at the West Side STEM Magnet Middle School site, which are being finalized now, said Graner.
Once the architect approves the plans, DAS will submit a letter authorizing the town to go out to bid on the schools, he said.
"We hope by the end of January we'll have the bid letter and we'll bid it out," Graner said.
Graner said construction hopefully then will begin in March on the new elementary schools, starting in areas as far away on the site from the existing middle school buildings as possible, with the lion's share of construction to be done starting in the summer when the students are out of school. The projected opening date of the elementary schools is Sept. 2021.
The construction of the two new elementary schools is part of the Groton 2020 plan, which also includes the construction of a new consolidated middle school next to Robert E. Fitch Senior High School. Mary Morrisson Elementary School, S.B. Butler Elementary School and Claude Chester Elementary School are slated to close when the two new elementary schools open in Sept. 2021.
The construction of Groton Middle School is on budget and projected to be completed in June 2020, Graner said.
"This is something we've been planning for a long time, and it's really right on the timeline," he said.
The new elementary schools are estimated to cost $45 million each, Graner said. The state approved 80 percent state reimbursement for the school at the Cutler site after Groton requested diversity school status to help address racial imbalance, Graner said. The school at the West Side site is slated for 47 percent state reimbursement.
The two-story elementary buildings will be approximately 70,000 square feet, with the capacity to each accommodate 604 students, he said. They will be built to accommodate a nurse's office and a school-based health center and will have playing fields, playscapes, early childhood and regular elementary classrooms, and a separate traffic route for buses and parent drop-off.
Themes for intra-district magnet schools
The two new elementary schools will be intra-district magnet schools with defined neighborhood areas, as well as slots, available by a lottery, for children who live in other parts of town, he said.
Charles Barnum Elementary School also is slated to become an intra-district magnet school starting in the 2021-22 school year, which means that all five elementary schools will be intra-district magnet schools starting that school year.
Graner also pointed out that while 15 years ago the district had 14 schools, there will be 7 schools in 2021-22: five elementary schools, Groton Middle School, and the high school.
Graner described it as akin to "a reinvention of the district."
The Board of Education has established a committee and has been looking at various options for themes for the two new elementary schools as well as Charles Barnum.
"We are extremely interested in making sure that we identify themes that parents and kids would very much want to be a part of," Graner said.
Examples of potential themes include International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme, classical studies, play and ingenuity, STEAM, arts, and STEM and leadership, he said.
"This month we are going to send out a survey to get teachers input, and then after the New Year, once we get results from the teachers back, we are going to do a survey for the parents," Graner said.
The plan is to then conduct a series of focus groups with parents to determine which themes would be the most attractive, he said.

Bond Commission to weigh $13.5M for Pratt St., Colt apts
Matt Pilon
In its first meeting since September, the state Bond Commission next week will vote on authorizing $13.5 million in loans to spur the creation of 155 apartment units in downtown Hartford. The bulk of that amount, $12.5 million, will go to a prominent development trio, the Pratt Street Initiative Partnership, to assist with the first phase of their envisioned $100 million Pratt Street revival, while a $1.5 million loan would go to the owner of Colt Gateway to help build out 26 apartments in a recently vacated magnet high school building. The Pratt Street funding will be in the form of a mortgage and tax-credit bridge loan. It will be used to help with the project’s $30-million first phase, which will convert commercial properties at 196 Trumbull St. and 99 Pratt St. into 129 rental units -- a combination of studios, one-bedrooms and micro units -- as well as nearly 19,000 square feet of retail space. The upper floors of the two buildings have been vacant for some time. Construction has already begun at 196 Trumbull, and could wrap up by April, said Martin J. Kenny of Lexington Partners LLC, lead member of the development trio that also includes major Hartford landlord Shelbourne Global and LAZ Parking CEO Alan Lazowski. The Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) approved the financing back in October. “Conversion to residential will add new value and life to the street and complement efforts in that area just east of the XL Center,” CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth said Thursday afternoon. Kenny said he and his partners  hope to begin work on 99 Pratt St. -- the second piece of phase one -- in the first quarter of 2020.  Future plans include converting several other buildings on Pratt Street into more apartments and redeveloping the One Talcott Plaza parking garage and renovating the old Sage Allen building at Temple and Main street,  which the Pratt Street developers have said they want to buy out of foreclosure. Kenny said the developers need to finalize their conceptual plan for the second phase before approaching CRDA about any additional loans. The plan for phase two includes another 65 rental units and 13,000 square feet of retail space, he said. He said he's pleased that the financing package for the first phase made it onto the Bond Commission's agenda quickly, particularly amid an ongoing "debt diet" instituted by Gov. Ned Lamont, which has curtailed new borrowing. “We're delighted the state really prioritized this for downtown Hartford," Kenny said. “That speaks to the importance of the project, and we're gratified the state shares that vision.”More Colt apts in 2020
Meantime, an affirmative vote for the $1.5 million loan for Colt Gateway LLC, an affiliate of CG Management Co., would allow the company to begin redevelopment work on the last major vacant building at the historic former Colt firearms manufacturing site. The developer plans to build 26 units on the upper two floors of the building, which is known as the U-Shaped Building. There are also plans for commercial space on the first floor of the building. CRDA approved the loan nearly a year ago. Freimuth said if the loan is OK’d by the commission next week, the project is expected to get underway in the new year. The U-Shaped units, combined with apartments already or under construction in the nearby South Armory and North Armory, would bring the total number of rental units at Colt Gateway to approximately 200.

Mayor of Bristol praises state's plan for Routes 72, 69 construction
BRISTOL – The state’s plan to make major changes to the intersection of Routes 72 and 69 will help jump start improvements to the West End, according to Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu. “It’s a little bit of pain for a lot of gain.”
The Connecticut Department of Transportation held a public information meeting on the project recently. It will involve widening Route 72, shifting it to the north, and adding dedicated left turn lanes, and extending Pratt Street one block north to connect with 72. Divinity Street will be terminated at its intersection with Landry Street.
The estimated cost is $6 million, 80% federally funded and 20% state funded, said Joseph Arsenault, project engineer.
“We’ve been monitoring this project for years. We’re happy that we’ve gotten to the point where we have a project number and funding attached to it, which is really important,” said Zoppo-Sassu.
The neighborhood, which is historic and densely populated, has been struggling for years, she said. “This is one of those projects that can actually pivot and start to change some of the socioeconomic and perception issues in this neighborhood.”
The plan includes demolishing four multi-family buildings along Route 72, which the mayor said will help lower the housing density in the West End.
“Our code enforcement initiative has been at work for years trying to clean up and introduce good landlords to this area, and for the most part I think we’ve been pretty successful,” she said.
The city’s 2015 Plan of Conservation and Development and 2011 A Plan for the West End Neighborhood both address the housing density in the neighborhood, Zoppo-Sasssu said.
They address creating more parking spaces and lowering housing density through selective demolition, she said, “so that everybody has a little bit more green space, a little bit more breathing room.”
The city is interested in pursuing selective demolition even beyond what is included in the DOT’s project, she said.
“And let’s not forget that we have the Pequabuck River as a resource,” she added, noting that the city is looking to connect pedestrian and bicycle paths from Memorial Boulevard to Rockwell Park.
Zoppo-Sassu said there is another DOT project that is just in the conceptual stages right now, that could eventually re-align Route 72 to come through Brackett Park, so it wouldn’t turn down Main Street to connect with School Street, she said.
That would help to further connect the West End with Riverside Avenue, “which is in desperate need of a facelift,” and all the way to the planned bridge improvement project where Blakeslee and Downs streets, Riverside and Memorial Boulevard meet, she said.
“So we are really interested in continuing the partnership and conversation with the DOT because as this project comes to fruition there are all these other opportunities to add other pieces to it as well. It can really help redefine what we’re doing downtown, and this neighborhood specifically,” she said.

The bricks on Naugatuck’s Whittemore Memorial Bridge are causing problems. Can they be saved?
NAUGATUCK — The borough is making one last attempt to keep the bricks along the Whittemore Memorial Bridge before paving the road.
The borough completed a project to reconstruct the bridge, which spans the Naugatuck River along Maple Street, last year.
The project included restoring the bridge to how it looked before the Flood of 1955, which led to a decision to lay bricks along the bridge instead of paving the road.
Shortly after the bridge reopened to two-way traffic, bricks along the bridge shifted in areas, creating bumps and depressions along the road. Drainage issues caused the problem with the bricks, officials said, and the issues stemmed from a flaw in the design of the project.
In July, CHA Consulting Inc., the firm that did the design work for the project, agreed to pay the borough $90,000 as part of a settlement over the problems with the bricks. At the time, officials planned to try a few options to save the bricks, and they may have found a way to do so.
Public Works Director James Stewart said the plan is to remove the bricks, take out the drainage blanket, and then lay the bricks in a dry mortar or grout.
Stewart said the borough already did this on a 10-foot-by-10-foot section of the bridge on the southern portion of it in September, and there hasn’t been an issue. He said he is “very optimistic” this method will solve the problem.
Officials are watching the section of the bridge that was recently repaired over the winter to see if it will hold up. If the section makes it through the winter, the borough will do the same repairs across both ends of the bridge and whichever sections need it in the middle, Stewart said.
Stewart said the work will be done in-house. There is no cost estimate yet.
Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess said he would like to save the bricks. He expects the money from the settlement will more than cover the cost of the repairs.
If the repairs do not work out how the borough hopes, the money will also cover the cost to pave the bridge, which is the borough’s next option, Hess said. However, he would rather keep the bricks.“We are going to make every effort to retain the look of the bricks,” Hess said. “It’s not about money, it’s about trying to get the best look we can.”

Treasurer: latest bond sale reflects well on Connecticut’s long-term stability 
HARTFORD — State Treasurer Shawn T. Wooden and Gov. Ned Lamont say the state’s latest $894.6 million bond sale continued to reflect the renewed investor confidence in Connecticut’s long-term fiscal stability.
Orders from retail and institutional investors reached $1.7 billion, and orders received during a one-day retail period last Wednesday exceeded $511 million, the second-highest amount on any bond sale in Connecticut history.
Wooden reported that, because orders exceeded the bonds available, the state government was able to lower the interest rates it pays to purchasers of the bond.
“Continued improvement in our bond pricing spreads is a strong vote of confidence by investors,” he said.
The treasurer’s and governor’s offices also played up a report Thursday from Bloomberg News that the bond market has stopped penalizing Connecticut.
The report said the gap between the state’s debt yields and the AAA benchmark has narrowed this year by more than any of the other 19 big states tracked by Bloomberg’s indexes.
As a result, the approximate 1.9% yield on Connecticut’s 10-year bonds is hovering around 40 basis points above top-rated securities, according to Bloomberg. This was the lowest since 2015, and less than half the premium investors demanded at the start of the year.
Lamont spotlighted the Bloomberg report during remarks Friday to the annual holiday breakfast of the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce.
“They said Connecticut bonds last year were selling like triple B. Now, they are selling like triple A,” he said.
After his speech, Lamont declined to speculate if Connecticut might be verging on an upgrade from bond rating agencies. Upgraded bond ratings can reduce the cost of borrowing.
“I can’t speak to that, but the Bloomberg report was very positive about what we are trying to do here in the state of Connecticut, and the rates we got were historically low if you saw what the bonding we did. So, I’ve got my fingers crossed,” Lamont told reporters.
Four bond rating agencies lowered the state’s credit rating in 2016 and 2017 – Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings, Moody’s Investor Services, Fitch Ratings Inc., and Kroll Bond Rating Agency.
The treasurer’s office reported all of the credit rating agencies affirmed their credit ratings and outlooks for the state’s general obligation bonds ahead of last week’s sale: Moody’s at A1 with a stable outlook, Standard & Poor’s at A with a positive outlook, Fitch at A+ with a stable outlook, and Kroll at AA- with a stable outlook.
Earlier this year, Kroll and Standard & Poor’s revised their outlooks on Connecticut’s creditworthiness.
The $896.9 million bond sale consisted of $700 million of 2020 Series A bonds to fund state grants and capital improvements, plus an additional $194.6 million of 2020 Series B bonds were issued to refund existing bonds to lower interest rates for $12.6 million in savings.
The overall interest cost was 2.57% on the $700 million 20-year Series A, the lowest on a comparable 20-year bond issue since 2016.
Lamont told the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce that despite the positive developments that a Connecticut turnaround is still a way off.
“I can say we are making progress. We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re making progress everyday,” he said.
Bond rating agencies also made some cautionary notes concerning the latest bond sale. They citied as strengths Connecticut’s high income levels, strong governance, and adequate liquidity. The state’s budget reserve fund has a balance of $2.5 billion, and it is projected to increase to $2.8 billion at the conclusion of the 2020 fiscal year.
But the Wall Street agencies also said those attributes are offset by high fixed costs for debt service, pension and post-employment benefits, unfunded pension liabilities and outstanding debt.“Currently, Connecticut remains the only state with a potentially high enough debt burden to trigger a one-notch downward override rating adjustment under our state rating methodology,” the Standard & Poor’s report said.

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