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CT Construction Digest Monday December 9, 2019

Lamont: Average truck tolls of $8 could buy $19.4B in improvements

Truck tolls on a dozen bridges in Connecticut could produce $187 million in net revenue annually and finance $19.4 billion in transportation infrastructure improvements over 10 years, costing drivers as little as $1.25 for a medium truck with an EZ Pass and as much as $19.20 for an 18-wheeler without one.
Gov. Ned Lamont released the proposed tolls rates and projected financial returns Friday in a letter to legislative leaders as he and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, jousted over the significance of an appeals court decision that changes the venue of a legal challenge to a similar Rhode Island system from state to federal court.
The average one-way toll for a truck in Connecticut with an EZ Pass transponder would be $8, higher than the average truck tolls of $5.31 in Rhode Island and $4.18 in Massachusetts, but lower than the $25.49 in New York state, $21 in Maryland, $12.50 in Delaware and $11.18 in New Jersey, the administration said.
The new plan assumes Connecticut would begin collecting tolls in 2023, raising $230.1 million. The net revenue would be lower, offset by $26.8 million in operating expenses, sharing $9.9 million with municipalities, and refunding $6.2 million to trucks that crossed the same toll twice in one day.
A $21 billion, 10-year infrastructure plan Lamont released last month would have been financed with tolls on all motor vehicles at 14 bridges, but it was effectively killed by Senate Democrats. Last week, the governor and Democratic leaders united behind trucks-only tolls, a concept proposed by Lamont during the 2018 campaign and then abandoned after he took office.
The release of the financial pro forma had been planned for days as a necessary step toward translating the truck tolls plan into legislation that Senate and House Democratic leaders hope to place before lawmakers in special session next month. But it competed for attention Friday with news of the truckers’s victory in winning a venue change in Rhode Island.
Attorney General William Tong and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, downplayed the significance of the venue change, with Ritter saying that lawmakers are well aware that a trucks-only plan in Connecticut will draw a similar legal challenge from the trucking industry as the one brought in Rhode Island.
“We fully expect, when we pass this bill, the trucking industry to file a lawsuit alleging a violation of the commerce and equal protection clauses,” Ritter said.Ritter said the transportation bill must be drafted in a way that establishes a rational basis for singling out trucks over cars and that the tolls do not interfere with interstate commerce. In addition, he said, the plan would have to build in safeguards in the event of an adverse court decision.
There is no legal prohibition against treating trucks differently from automobiles in toll charges. Based on the greater wear and tear caused by tractor-trailers, truckers pay far higher tolls than drivers of passenger cars in New York, Massachusetts and other states with tolls. What is unique in Rhode Island is that cars are charged nothing, while trucks pay an average of $5.31.
A commonly quoted basis for the higher charges is research published in 1979 by the U.S. General Accounting Office. It was cited Friday in Lamont’s letter to lawmakers. The trucking industry challenges the methodology that concludes trucks cause exponentially higher damage than cars.
“According to the U.S. General Accounting Office and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, a single five-axle tractor-trailer does the same damage to our highways as 9,600 passenger cars,” Lamont wrote.
Trucking interests sued Rhode Island in U.S. District Court over truck tolls installed on I-95 to raise money for the reconstruction of bridges, arguing they violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. A federal trial judge dismissed the case, citing a federal law that bars district courts from limiting “the assessment, levy or collection of any tax under State law where a plain, speedy and efficient remedy may be had in the courts of such State.” 
On Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed the lower court, moving the case back into the U.S. District Court. The appeals court, while acknowledging conflicting case law in another circuit, concluded that tolls were not a tax.
“The court’s decision gives credence to the trucking industry’s challenge,” Fasano said in a statement. “It ties up this issue in litigation for years to come, leaves doubt and uncertainty in the ability to toll only trucks, and creates significant economic risk for taxpayers.”
Tong and Lamont rebutted that assertion with varying degrees of vehemence.
 
 
“The First Circuit’s ruling was limited to an issue involving the federal court’s jurisdiction to hear the case and did not address the merits of the case,” Tong said in an email. “As such, the decision does not appear to have any impact on Connecticut’s proposed toll plan.”
Lamont’s response was longer and sharper.
“Yesterday’s federal circuit court decision in Rhode Island was merely a procedural ruling regarding whether this case should be heard in a federal or state court – nothing more. It did not decide on, or even address, the merits of the case,” Lamont said. “The ruling says nothing about the strength of the underlying legal challenge to trucks-only tolls, which far from being a burden on interstate commerce are a commonsense way to benefit that commerce by asking the in and out-of-state commercial trucks that do the most damage to our roads to pay their fair share of maintenance and congestion mitigation projects.”
Lamont suggested Fasano was being disingenuous.
“Senator Fasano either misunderstands or is greatly exaggerating the court’s decision for political gain,” Lamont said. “This federal circuit court decision, which is not binding in Connecticut, has simply held that truckers may bring their meritless claims in federal court as well as state court.”

Rhode Island trucks-only tolling exceeds revenue projections
Bill Cummings
Rhode Island is earning slightly more revenue from truck tolls than initially expected — a success that could boost the chance of a similar levy in Connecticut.
Since Rhode Island placed overhead electronic toll gantries on highway bridges in mid-2017, the state netted over $7.2 million from its first two tolling locations, about $55,000 more than expected, state records show.
When two more gantries were added last summer, the take rose to more than $10.8 million. Rhode Island plans to install eight more gantries over highway bridges to generate $450 million annually for repairs and improvements.
“The numbers are coming in a bit better than we had expected but on target overall,” said Lisbeth Pettengill, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.
“We are very pleased with this program as it draws revenue from large commercial tractor trailer trucks that do the largest percentage of damage to our roads,” Pettengill said.
Still, tolls as a revenue source for highway work is not guaranteed. Rhode Island’s truck toll program is being challenged in court as unfair and unconstitutional.
A federal judge last week issued a procedural decision that said the case could be heard in federal court.
Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly’s majority Democrats are considering a similar solution to fund highway work. Democrats want to place 12 truck tolls on highway bridges around the state to generate $180 million annually for improvements.
Lamont initially proposed tolling trucks and cars — a far more lucrative option — but opposition from his own party forced him to downgrade the plan to only trucks.
Republicans instead propose to use a portion of the state’s reserve or “rainy day” fund to leverage low cost federal loans.
Reacting to the federal court ruling, Lamont rejected calls to change course, pointing out that the ruling did not address the merits of the case. “The ruling says nothing about the strength of the underlying legal challenge to trucks-only tolls, which, far from being a burden on interstate commerce, are a commonsense way to benefit that commerce by asking the in and out-of-state commercial trucks that do the most damage to our roads to pay their fair share of maintenance and congestion mitigation projects,” Lamont said.
Both the Republican and Democratic plans envision spending about $20 billion by 2030 on rail, bus and highway improvements. The new toll revenue would be dedicated to bridge and highway work
Tolls and trucks
While some in Connecticut fear truck drivers will find ways around highway tolls, clogging local roads in the process, Rhode Island has found the number of trucks passing underneath its gantries increased over time, indicating drivers are not seeking alternate routes.
Data from the Rhode Island DOT shows that when the first two toll locations went live in July 2018 about 188,000 trucks passed under two I-95 locations.
By May 2019, transactions at those locations grew to more than 204,000. Revenue generated also grew, from more than $625,000 in July 2018 to more than $672,000 in May of this year.
The addition of two more gantries, in August and October, showed the same trend.
The number of trucks now passing under four scanners grew from more than 194,000 in July to about 245,000 in October.
Pettengill said Rhode Island expects to activate its fifth gantry this month and plans to push ahead with the remaining locations.
“We had some delays earlier this year due to flooding in the Midwest, which is where the steel fabricators are that provide the materials for the gantries,” Pettengill said.
Pettengill stressed that money earned from truck tolls is dedicated to bridge work.
“RhodeWorks legislation specifies that the tolling revenue will provide ten percent of our total funding, or $450 million over ten years,” Pettengill said,
“In ten years from our start date, or in 2025, we will have 90 percent bridge sufficiency,” Pettengill said, referring to the result of the highway work.
A spokesman for Lamont did not respond to requests for comment on Rhode Island’s toll revenue or its impact on the debate in Connecticut.
The divisive issue of tolls could be resolved during a special legislative session in the next month or so or when the General Assembly reconvenes in February.
“Harmful to our industry”
Despite the monetary success, Rhode Island’s toll program is facing a serious legal challenge and has plenty of opponents.
The American Trucking Associations is battling the tolls in court, arguing that charging trucks is discriminatory and violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The federal court decision last week essentially overturned a lower court decision on jurisdiction and said the case could proceed in U.S. District Court.
The decision prompted state Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, to call on Lamont to scrap the idea of tolls.
“The court’s decision gives credence to the trucking industry’s challenge,” Fasano said. “It ties up this issue in litigation for years to come, leaves doubt and uncertainty in the ability to toll only trucks, and creates significant economic risk for taxpayers.
“Tolling trucks sets us up for failure and leads us down a path to car tolls.”
 Lamont rejected Fasano’s argument.
 Senator Fasano either misunderstands or is greatly exaggerating the court’s decision for political gain,” Lamont said.
“This federal circuit court decision, which is not binding in Connecticut, has simply held that truckers may bring their meritless claims in federal court as well as state court,” Lamont added.
“What is not in dispute is that Connecticut must make investments in its transportation infrastructure in order to help grow the state’s economy,” Lamont said.
In September, Darren Hawkins, an American Trucking Associations executive committee member, told Congress tolls are often misused by states.
“Federal law allows states to shift excess toll revenue to any (federal) eligible purpose,” Hawkins told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. “This results in toll payers bankrolling projects that they may not benefit from.”
Hawkins said tolls can harm the trucking industry and consumers.
“While the trucking industry is willing to pay its fair share for infrastructure improvement, we believe that tolls are not the right solution and in fact can be very harmful to our industry, our customers and ultimately, to consumers,” Hawkins said.
The ATA also told committee members that toll collection costs can exceed 10 percent of the take.
Hawkins said Ohio is spending 19 cents to collect a dollar of toll revenue while Pennsylvania’s collection rate exceeds 20 percent of revenue obtained.

New Mystic boathouse design well-received at public meeting
Kimberly Drelich
 
Stonington — When people were asked at the end of a public meeting Saturday if they liked the new design for the boathouse at the Mystic River Boathouse Park, hands went up across the room.
No one later raised their hands when asked if they disliked it.
"I just want to say I was an opponent of the original draft, and you guys did a fantastic job on this building. I'm really excited about it," Matt Beaudoin, who owns the popular Mystic Knotwork shop, said during the meeting, to applause.
“I was one of the few proponents of the first design and so am delighted to sit here today and say that I didn’t ever think I would be as happy with the second as I was with the first," resident Liz Stern said. "I’m very grateful.”
Sketches for the new design for the boathouse, a New England-style structure with a cupola, were unveiled to more than 70 people during a presentation that began at 4 p.m. in the Stonington High School commons.
The process for the boathouse design had started all over again once it became clear that the public didn't like the abstract design, color and contemporary fa├žade of the initial renderings presented last year, said Mike O'Neill, director of rowing for the Friends of Stonington Crew and vice chairman of the Mystic River Boathouse Park Implementation Committee.
The new approach called for better representing "Mystic's Historic Maritime Roots" and matching the building to the "rhythm of the street," according to the presentation. The Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office also said a historic house, which is within the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District had to remain on the property, so the new design had to complement that structure.
The design inspiration for the boathouse comes from the traditional New England house/barn concept, O'Neill said.
"It's a very time-tested design: a house, a connector, a barn," he said. Under the concept, the house serves as an "anchor" for a secondary structure.
According to the presentation, the historical house will be shifted 90 feet to the north to accommodate the boathouse and parking. In an "adaptive reuse" project, the house will be restored and the interior will be turned into changing rooms, offices and restrooms. It then will be connected to the boathouse through a glass hallway that will be the Hart Perry Trophy Room.
The boathouse will contain boat bays, equipment storage and a training area, according to the presentation. The outside of the boathouse largely will be weathered wood, either pine or cedar, to resemble structures along the shoreline, O'Neill said. The goal is to make the boathouse as environmentally friendly as possible.
There also will be an amphitheater that would provide outdoor seating for rowers or could be a place for people to have a picnic when the boathouse isn't in use, he said.
Though the designs are still conceptual, the boathouse is proposed at 48 feet wide, 90 feet long and about 38 feet tall, he said.
The boathouse, connector and the restored house will become the new Stonington Community Rowing Center, said John Thornell of Friends of Stonington Crew. O'Neill said the idea is to provide programs for people of all ages.
The new boathouse design hasn't been priced yet but it is expected to be in the $2.4 million range, O'Neill said. The Friends group is fundraising for the boathouse project.
Prior to the presentation on the boathouse, Chad Frost, principal of Kent + Frost in Mystic, gave a presentation updating the public on the plans for the park.
At least three interpretive signs about the history of the park will be installed, along with lines across the park that will indicate historical shorelines, so people can see exactly where the land was during different time periods in the past, Frost said.
The anticipated schedule for the park calls for multiple permitting steps, and if all goes according to plan, bids would be expected to be finalized between Dec. 2020 and Feb. 2021, and construction would be slated for April 2021-22, according to the presentation.
He said components of the design of the park could serve as a solution to the environmental remediation needed for the site. That would enable the town when seeking brownfield cleanup grants, to ask for the state to pay for many of the improvements to the park as part of the grants. For example, the parking lot could be part of the capping of the site.
According to the presentation, preliminary construction costs for the park are estimated around $3,230,000, with $2,790,000 eligible for remediation grants. That would leave $440,000 for Stonington to cover, and Frost said the town has $435,000 in available town funds and $85,000 in escrow remediation funds.
After the presentation, residents gave their comments and also asked questions, including concerns about the traffic impact, which the committee said would be addressed during the permitting process.
Former First Selectman Rob Simmons and his wife, Heidi, and First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough were recognized for their support of the projects.

How sustainable is the $24 million renovation at Connecticut College?     
Erica Moser      
    
New London — A group of students in Connecticut College's new Climate Action Club have gathered more than 850 signatures on their petition to make Palmer Auditorium, which is about to undergo a $24 million renovation, carbon neutral and include sustainability considerations.
But administrators defend the process, feeling confident in their sustainability principles regardless of certification but conceding they could do more to keep students informed.
The petition, launched on Change.org on Tuesday, reads in part, "We, the students and alumni of Connecticut College, urge President (Katherine) Bergeron and the Palmer Renovation project team to prioritize sustainability and make Palmer Auditorium carbon neutral (the balance of carbon emissions with carbon removal, or the complete elimination of carbon emissions)."
It continues, "It is vital that Palmer is carbon neutral, or at the very least LEED silver, so that its carbon footprint will not negatively impact our environment for the foreseeable future." Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, is a widely recognized environmental rating system and certification process for "highly efficient and cost-saving buildings."
Students criticized Conn for not incorporating sustainability practices in the Palmer renovation when sustainability principles are laid out in the college's master plan.
Rich Madonna, vice president of finance and administration at the college, told The Day he thought students "operated under the assumption in creating this petition that sustainability had not been part of the thinking of the project."
Trina Learned, associate vice president for facilities management and campus planning, explained the college's process for sustainability considerations. She started by noting the college is "really, really committed to reusing what we've already invested in," hence the renovation of a historic building instead of new construction.
Learned added that the college then looks at water use; energy systems, which will be more efficient than what was put into Palmer Auditorium in its original construction in 1939; indoor air quality; use of daylight; and selection of materials.
She is "delighted that the marketplace is starting to catch up on LEED certification rules," allowing Conn to use materials that are locally sourced or not depleting major sources.
Learned expects to meet the goal of a sustainable building regardless of whether the school pays the "fairly substantial fees" for LEED certification.
"We would actually prefer to take those funds, rather than chasing a point tally, and actually put them into the building," she said.
The U.S. Green Building Council awarded LEED Gold certification to New London Hall on campus, after a $25.3 million renovation that finished in 2012.
Learned said seeing students involved gives the college a "terrific opportunity to continue to reinforce sustainability," though Madonna said one thing they haven't done is give students updates online. Madonna met with Climate Action Club students on Friday, after the students met with Bergeron during her monthly office hours.
"I think people's reaction when they're not freely given information is maybe there's a reason," Grace Neale, one of the students, told The Day.
Avatar Simpson said it was "hard to know what is and isn't in place," and Katie Warren said she first heard about sustainability concerns from a faculty member.
Madonna referenced the hope of expanding geothermal heating and adding solar panels — two ideals cited in the petition — as part of Conn's sustainability plan for the future, though Neale said she would still like to see more immediacy on those fronts.
As for LEED certification, Neale feels that having that name recognition could help Conn with admissions, for students who specifically want to attend a school that values sustainability.
But she said this was a good opportunity to meet with Bergeron and Madonna, and she hopes to hear more about the plans for Palmer Auditorium.
Learned teaches a first-year seminar about the campus, and at the beginning of the design process last year, she brought three seminars to meet with the design team. She told The Day that construction on Palmer is expected to start in February and be ready for occupation in the summer of 2021.

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