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CT Construction Digest Wednesday January 8, 2020

House Speaker says he’s ‘very comfortable’ there are enough votes to pass truck-only tolls, but situation is murkier in state Senate

After nearly a year of heated debates over highway tolls, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said Tuesday he is “very comfortable” there are enough Democratic votes in the state House of Representatives to pass Gov. Ned Lamont’s latest truck-only tolls plan in a special session later this month.But the situation was murkier in the state Senate, where Democrats said they have the needed 18 votes to pass the plan, but with certain conditions. “We have a contingent consensus of 18 members who have not rejected the concept of a bill to toll trucks on bridges only,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven. "We don’t have more than four nos that would defeat a toll bill altogether. We will have at least 18 potential yeses who have not rejected a toll vote in concept, as long as their precise concerns are satisfactorily addressed.'' Aresimowicz and Looney spoke after closed-door caucuses among House Democrats and Senate Democrats to take the political temperature on tolls, the most controversial issue facing the legislature over the past year. Lawmakers hope to pass tolls in a special session because the regular session will be busy with the state budget and multiple other issues that will take much of the legislators’ attention. Lamont’s latest plan would toll trucks only at 12 bridges on six highways across Connecticut to help fund a 10-year, $19.4 billion overhaul of the state’s transportation system. A draft of the bill has not been released. Previous plans for tolls on the Merritt Parkway in Norwalk and on Route 9 in Middletown have been dropped. Lawmakers estimated the plan would generate a projected $150 million to $175 million a year. Only larger tractor-trailer trucks would be tolled. No tolls would be charged on buses, ambulances, box trucks or small trucks, legislators said. The toll money collected at the 12 bridges could only be spent on repairs for the specific bridge, rather than general road construction in other areas of the state, lawmakers said. Constructing 12 overhead toll gantries will be much faster than constructing the 50 or 80 gantries from previous plans, but the entire project will take at least 18 months from the time that a contract is signed, officials said. No toll money is expected to be collected until the 2023 fiscal year. Republicans, who remain uniformly opposed to tolls, were immediately skeptical about the chances of a vote this month, noting that the final bill has not been written or circulated to legislators. “They don’t have a bill," said Senate Republican leader Len Fasano. “They don’t have a plan.” Fasano and House Republican leader Themis Klarides predicted Democrats would face blowback in the November elections if tolls are approved. “People will not forget about it when it gets to November 2020,” Fasano said. Aresimowicz disputes that notion. Fasano and House Republican leader Themis Klarides predicted Democrats would face blowback in the November elections if tolls are approved. “People will not forget about it when it gets to November 2020,” Fasano said. Aresimowicz disputes that notion. Aresimowicz disputes that notion.House Majority Leader Matt Ritter of Hartford agreed, saying that the election will be fought on multiple issues including gun control, abortion and climate change.  In the Senate, some Democrats have said they will only vote for the toll plan if there are provisions for minority hiring and improved bus service in the cities. Democratic senators also want to specifically state in the bill that tolls on passenger cars will not be included, blocking the idea of an eventual expansion to tolls on cars. They also want additional oversight of the state transportation department, which would be in charge of the tolls. Sen. Joan Hartley, a conservative Democrat from Waterbury, said she has concerns about three toll gantries in her region when some other senators have only one. When asked if she would vote for the bill, Hartley said, “I do not have complete information about any of this stuff.” In the House, Aresimowicz declined to say exactly how many votes he had in favor of Lamont’s plan. “There are still some details left to be negotiated between the House and Senate, so we didn’t hand out a bill,” he said. “But we talked about the concept of doing tolls for trucks only in the state of Connecticut, and it was very well received by the caucus.” While some House Democrats have been pushing for tolls for a year, others like Deputy Speaker Robert Godfrey of Danbury and John Hampton of Simsbury say they remain against Lamont’s latest plan. As further details are revealed in the bill, Fasano said he will push for a public hearing before any votes are cast. If a hearing by a Democratic-controlled committee does not provide the full details, Fasano said the transportation committee’s Republican ranking members would hold their own hearings to discuss the bill and receive feedback from residents. As further details are revealed in the bill, Fasano said he will push for a public hearing before any votes are cast. If a hearing by a Democratic-controlled committee does not provide the full details, Fasano said the transportation committee’s Republican ranking members would hold their own hearings to discuss the bill and receive feedback from residents. Aresimowicz said a bill would be drafted by mid- to late-January. “It is my strong wish that we come in and get it done prior to the session,” he said. As further details are revealed in the bill, Fasano said he will push for a public hearing before any votes are cast A top union official, David Roche, who serves as the president of the Connecticut Building Trades Council and general vice president of the state AFL-CIO umbrella organization, said his members are fighting for construction jobs. He gathered with multiple union members and lobbyists, including some advocates who chanted "We want tolls!” Tuesday outside the Senate chamber on the Capitol’s third floor. “We think the numbers are there, but we’re not 100% sure,” Roche said. “That’s why we’re here. I’ve been for this from the beginning — two years now. We’re getting tired of being disappointed.” But Roche agreed with Republicans who said that the tolls vote would be postponed by multiple other issues if the vote is not held before the session begins. “If the session starts, it’s done,” Roche said. “It’s time to step up.”

Senate Democrats near ‘contingent consensus’

The Democratic majorities of the state House and Senate cautiously edged toward consensus Tuesday on a 10-year, $19 billion transportation infrastructure plan that would charge tolls for tractor trailers on a dozen Connecticut highway bridges.
With few caveats, House Democratic leaders said they could pass a downsized plan that would raise about $170 million in net revenue annually, a drop from the earlier financial projections of $187 million for a broader plan that included medium-sized trucks.
But Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, emerged from a long closed-door caucus with a significant list of questions and conditions that must be addressed before he can assure the 18 votes necessary for passage in the Senate.
“We have a contingent consensus of 18 members who have not rejected the concept of a bill to toll trucks on bridges only,” Looney said.
Democrats hold 22 of the 36 seats in the Senate. Eighteen votes would allow passage on a tie-breaking vote by the presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz.
One of the conditions set by some Senate Democrats was language making clear to the voting public in 2020 that a vote for tractor truck tolls was not a first step toward a broader tolling plan, evidence of the success Republicans and other toll opponents had framing the debate.
“We know already the Republican strategy seems to be to ignore the bill that we’re actually trying to pass and just say that it’s the first step toward universal tolling, which they want to run on,” Looney said. “And obviously we want to blunt that.”
By exempting all but the largest commercial trucks, the legislators and Gov. Ned Lamont are willing to forgo revenue in favor of a political benefit: Countless local small businesses that use box trucks and smaller vehicles now would be unaffected by tolls, presumably taking away potential supporters of the no-tolls movement.
“It would have captured a lot of the small businesses in the state, such as the oil trucks that deliver oil to our homes, the Fed Exes, the UPSes, the small box trucks,” Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, said of the previous version. “We wanted to minimize even that impact on Connecticut businesses.”The change allowed House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, to frame the choice now before the General Assembly as imposing tolls on tractor trailers vs. borrowing that would be paid by all Connecticut taxpayers.
“I don’t want us to continue to pick 18 wheelers over the state of Connecticut. That’s what we’re talking about here,” Aresimowicz said. “It’s a silly discussion. We just need to move forward.”
Talking to reporters before the Senate Democrats outlined their “contingent” consensus, Republican minority leaders already were scoffing at the idea that Democrats could end the day with the commitments necessary for passage, questioning the quality of information available to lawmakers in the House and Senate caucuses.
“There is no toll plan. Let’s be clear. I’m not really sure what today was really about,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. “They don’t have a bill. They don’t have a plan. They’re saying it’s changing as we talk. The revenue is going down.”
House Democrats conceded that significant work remains, but said the parameters of the down-sized plan were clear to them, with a consensus in their caucus about toll rates, the classes of trucks to be tolled and the revenue that can be expected.
“There are some questions left to be answered. There is the finality of the bill actually being written up and getting the bill in their hands, so they can read it,” Aresimowicz said of his caucus members. “But I still feel very comfortable that we can move forward.”
But the Senate Democrats said later a key issue to be resolved is the responsibilities of a Transportation Oversight Board that would be created in the bill. Originally, the board was seen as way to review the construction priorities set by the DOT. 
  Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, Looney and Leone, the co-chair of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, would not rule out giving the board the authority to set toll rates — immediately inviting criticism from a no-tolls leader, Patrick Sasser.“They want an oversight board that will control toll rates,” Sasser said in a Tweet. “No way will we ever allow these elected officials to pass the buck to some board.”
Looney said some Senate Democrats also want assurances that urban bus service would be improved and minority-owned businesses would share in the transportation spending. But he added that he still thinks approval is possible in a special session this month.
The governor issued an optimistic assessment of his prospects for addressing the Senate Democrats’ concerns and eventually passing the latest version of his plan, CT2030
“I want to thank the House and Senate Democratic caucuses for meeting today to discuss the future of Connecticut’s transportation system and consideration of our CT2030 proposal,” Lamont said. “These are decisions that prior elected officials put off for decades, and Connecticut can no longer afford to kick the can down the potholed road. 
“Over the coming days, I look forward to continuing these discussions so we can adopt a plan to finally fix our transportation system and get our state’s economy moving again, in short order.”
The administration says half or more of the revenue would come from out-of-state trucks, according to modeling done by the state Department of Transportation. 
When medium-sized trucks were included, the estimate was that 49% of the toll revenue would come from out of state vehicles. No updated modeling was available Tuesday, but officials said the percentage was likely to increase significantly with only tractor-trailers being charged.Lamont has repeatedly scaled back his ambitions for a 10-year infrastructure spending plan, beginning with a comprehensive tolling plan in February that gained little support. 
CT 2030, the version he proposed in November, called for $21 billion in spending to be financed by a mix of tolls on all motor vehicles and low-cost federal loans. A trucks-only plan was projected to raise enough money to finance about $19.4 billion in transportation borrowing over a decade.
The Lamont administration said Tuesday that removing medium trucks from the tolling scheme would require shrinking spending from $19.399 billion to $19.162 billion, assuming legislators would accept the toll rates the administration proposed last month.
Under that proposal, tolls would vary by bridge, ranging from $6.40 to $12.80 for tractor trailers with an EZ Pass transponder and as much as $9.60 to $19.20 for others. Medium trucks would have paid as little as $1.25. 
The justification for higher tolls on heavier trucks is research that indicates damage to highways increases exponentially with the size of the vehicle, though the trucking industry disputes the findings.
Republicans are opposed to any form of tolls or new revenue, despite a growing backlog of infrastructure maintenance and the projected of insolvency of the Special Transportation Fund (STF) in about five years. 
Financed by fuel taxes, fees and some motor vehicle taxes, the STF pays the debt service on borrowing for transportation projects and the operating costs of the Departments of Transportation and Motor Vehicles.
The financing of CT2030 relies on more than tolls. One element involves an increase in the sales tax receipts pledged to transportation.
Connecticut transfers $60 million in sales tax revenues from vehicle sales this fiscal year from the budget’s General Fund to the transportation program. That transfer, in turn, helps cover the debt service on hundreds of millions of dollars borrowed via bonding to invest in highway, bridge and rail upgrades.The Democratic plan maintains a program already approved by the legislature to steadily increase that transfer, which would jump rapidly by 2022 to $272 million, and then grow more gradually until it reaches $424 million in 2030. 
Republicans question whether the General Assembly would keep that commitment in the event of a budget shortfall.
Investing $19 billion in transportation construction by 2030 also hinges on Connecticut’s economy remaining rosy until late 2024. Economists say the state and the nation are closer to their next downturn than to another boom cycle.
The Democratic proposal also involves tapping surplus dollars after the rainy day fund reaches it legal limit of 15% of operating expenses in late 2021.

Senate Democratic Caucus May Have 18 Votes For Truck-Only Tolls

House Democratic leadership said its caucus was comfortable that they will have the votes to pass a transportation package that includes funding from truck tolls, but they didn’t give rank-and-file lawmakers a copy of the legislation.
“There are still some details left to be negotiated between the House and the Senate,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said Tuesday after a closed-door meeting with his caucus.
Gov. Ned Lamont, who campaigned on truck-only tolls then switched to tolls on everyone once he was elected, is back to supporting truck-only tolls.
The issue has been central to his first year in office and has consumed most of his political capital.
“I think they’d like to get it done this month,” Lamont said Tuesday morning during a WNPR interview. “I’d like to get it done this month. You know, we put this off for about 15 years.”
The bill has not been officially drafted, according to Aresimowicz. But he still thinks they will be able to hold a public hearing and vote on the legislation before the end of January.
“Yeah there’s some questions left to be answered,” Aresimowicz said. “But I still feel really comfortable that we can move forward.”
Aresimowicz said the truck-only proposal that will net between $150 million to $175 million a year will only apply to large tractor-trailer trucks. It will not apply to buses or box trucks.
It’s unclear how much they plan to charge truckers in order to levy that amount. There are also questions about how the oversight board that would set those rates would be constituted.
“I feel very comfortable based on the conversations, and the conversations we’ve had over the last three years about our transportation infrastructure that we’re in a position to move Connecticut forward and end this debate once and for all,” Aresimowicz said.
The plan based on what lawmakers shared Tuesday assumes more than $150 million in revenue from truck-only tolls in 12 locations, and it would require the use of another $100 million in general obligation bonds.
The Democratic plan assumes leveraging federal funds at low interest rates based on the truck-only toll revenue. The original plan stretched out the repayment of the debt on those federal loans from 27 years to 35 years.
It’s unclear with less revenue from truck-only tolls how many years of repayment will be needed to raise $150 to $175 million in revenue.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said they could pledge more than just the truck-only toll revenue to obtain the low-interest federal loans. He said the feds don’t necessarily love that idea, but they would accept it. Republican legislative leaders said there’s nothing new about what happened Tuesday.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said the only thing new that happened is the revenue they expect to get from truck-only tolls is less than it was before.
“We are still strongly against tolls for all the reasons we’ve given before,” Klarides said.
She said the Democrats don’t even have a vote count, which would have been new development.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said if they had the votes they would have voted already.
“If you don’t have a plan what are you vote counting?,” Fasano asked.
Klarides said they have to votes to pass this for the “last 45 years if they choose to do it. So any conversation about what we have or have not done is a moot point.”
Senate Republicans came up with a no-toll alternative that uses the Rainy Day Fund to pay down pension debt.
The 10-year, $18-billion Senate Republican plan, dubbed FASTR CT, uses the money from paying down the equity on special transportation obligation bonds, $100 million in general obligation bonds, and the new car sales tax as revenue streams to access the low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Build America Bureau.
Fasano said the state of Connecticut would still have $1.7 billion in the Rainy Day Fund at the end of this fiscal year if they implemented his proposal.
“We’re going to have money,” Fasano said. “... And paying down debt is not a bad way of going about solving your fiscal problems.”
That equation doesn’t work for the Lamont administration, which has worked to rebuild reserves in the Rainy Day Fund and is preparing for the next recession.
Fasano said the Democrats want to do this in a special session in January because they know the idea doesn’t have public support.
“They want to get it over with as soon as they can and are hoping that people forget about it by November,” he added. “And people will not forget about it.”
Patrick Sasser, co-founder of No Tolls CT, said the public is worried that they will flip the switch from truck-only tolls to tolls on all vehicles.
Democratic lawmakers have said they would try and do something like a bond covenant to try and guarantee no tolls on passenger cars.
Klarides said all the public knows is that lawmakers are putting in tolls that will take more money out of their pocket.
“They know they do not trust the state of Connecticut to keep their word,” Klarides said. “So they don’t want to hear about bond covenant, bond schmuvenance. They don’t know what that means and they know they don’t trust.” 

HARTFORD – Connecticut inched closer Tuesday to possibly reintroducing highway tolls after enough Senate Democrats tentatively agreed to support truck-only tolls on 12 bridges across the state, including the Mixmaster interchange in Waterbury.
In a potential breakthrough, Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, announced after a lengthy caucus that 18 of the 22 Democratic senators had made conditional commitments to back the limited plan targeting heavy commercial trucks.
“We have a contingent consensus of 18 members who have not rejected the concept of a bill to toll trucks on bridges only,” he said.
If the 18 Democratic votes materialize, this would set up Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz to cast the deciding vote in the 36-seat Senate to advance a transportation funding plan with tractor-trailer tolls.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, stated earlier Tuesday he was “very comfortable” that Democrats in the House would follow the Senate in approving a trucks-only tolling plan.
“Look, I know we can pass it,” he told reporters.
Aresimowicz and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, will need to assemble 76 votes to pass a tolling bill in the 151-seat House.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, and Senate Minority Leader Leonard A. Fasano, R-North Haven, on Tuesday reaffirmed the two GOP caucuses remain opposed to highway tolls of any kind.
“What hasn’t changed from our perspective is, we are very strongly against tolls for all the reasons we have given before,” Klarides said.
Republicans have maintained tolls are unnecessary to support transportation spending. They have also cast the highway user fees as another tax on the state’s already overtaxed taxpayers.
The House and Senate GOP are additionally arguing the tractor-trailer tolls will be a prelude to expanding tolling to other trucks and passenger vehicles. Anti-toll advocates make the same claim.
The trucks-only plan remains a work in progress. Details are still being negotiated, and it remained unclear Tuesday when the authorizing legislation would be ready for action.
Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic leaders would prefer to recall the legislature in a special session to approve a transportation funding plan before the start of regular 2020 session on Feb. 5.
“These are decisions that prior elected officials put off for decades, and Connecticut can no longer afford to kick the can down the potholed road,” Lamont said in a statement “Over the coming days, I look forward to continuing these discussions so we can adopt a plan to finally fix our transportation system and get our state’s economy moving again, in short order.”
Rank-and-file Democrats in the House and Senate laid out questions, concerns and caveats in Tuesday’s caucuses that they want satisfied before they commit themselves to supporting a transportation funding plan that relies on truck-only bridge tolls.
Looney ticked off a list of issues that Senate Democrats raised including how to assure the public that tolls will not be expanded to passenger cars, oversight of the Department of Transportation, minority hiring on the bridge construction projects, and bus transportation serving the state’s urban centers.
“Members said their vote in many cases is contingent on certain things that are yet unclear,” he said.
Looney and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, expressed confidence that the conditional commitments made Tuesday can be firmed up.
One of the concerns that came up was the proposed tolling locations. This was an issue for Sen. Joan V. Hartley, D-15th District, because two gantries would be set up in her home city of Waterbury and a third would be located nearby.
The list of 12, bridge improvement projects includes the Mixmaster interchange of Interstate 84 and Route 8 in Waterbury, four bridges on Route 8 south of the I-84 interchange in Waterbury, and the Rochambeau Bridge over the Housatonic River on I-84 in Newtown and Southbury. The estimated combined costs of the three projects ranged from $315 million to $405 million.
Hartley is a fiscal conservative, and she has a record of opposing higher spending and taxes, but she would not describe herself as a “no” vote Tuesday.
“Right now, I don’t have complete information about any of this stuff,” she said.
Yet, Hartley observed Greater Waterbury is the only region in the state where three tolling locations are being proposed. She said she was told trucks would only have to pay tolls once a day, but that did not seem to mollify her concerns.
Rough estimates cited Tuesday were that tolls on heavy commercial trucks could raise $150 million to $175 million in net revenue.
Lamont and Democratic leaders propose to use revenue from truck-only tolls to secure $1.5 billion in low-interest federal loans through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act to finance the bridge projects.

PLAINVILLE - The town will aim to wrap up a couple of long-running projects under-budget this year as it prepares for the next series of municipal improvements, which will include roadways and sidewalks.
Both the Wheeler School renovation and the phosphorus reduction upgrades to the town’s waste water treatment plant, projects which began in 2017, are expected to wrap up this spring, said Town Manager Robert E. Lee. Both projects are expected to be completed ahead of schedule and under budget.
“Wheeler School was a $23 million project and it is coming in at about $1 million under,” said Lee. “The treatment plant is also about $1 million under. That project was budgeted for about $15 million. Wheeler School is basically done; we’re down to punch list items like landscaping.”
Lee said the town could also expect to see progress with the closure of the Plainville gap in the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. The southern portion of the trail through town, he said, is expected to begin this year.
“We will be finalizing the design in the next three or four months,” he said. “We plan to hold public information sessions so that the public and the Town Council can give feedback.”
Five-year plan
The town will also begin its second $5 million, five-year road repair project. Voters approved this plan at a referendum in November 2019 with 2,304 in favor and 686 against.
The roads addressed will be those that haven’t been touched in 25 to 30 years. Some roads that could be addressed include Whiting Street, which has’t been repaired since 1991; Arcadia Avenue, which hasn’t been paved since 1989; and Robert Holcomb Way, which hasn’t been done since 1990. Also included would be Homestead Avenue, a small street that Lee said hasn’t been paved since 1984; Ciccio Court and Beckwith Drive, untouched since 1984; Maiden Lane, unpaved since 1989; Canal Street, which hasn’t been repaired since 1991; and a portion of Redstone Hill to Town Line Road. Another portion of Town Line Road was previously repaired.
“We will be sitting down with staff and planning out which roads get done soon,” said Lee. “The ones which haven’t been repaved in the longest will be the top priority.”
Lee said the town’s budget season is coming up and that the Town Council has directed him to look at addressing the repairs of local sidewalks.
“It will be a challenge to do this along with our other capital improvement needs, but like the road project we will be looking at the worst ones and coming up with a list of priorities,” he said.
On the economic development side of things, Lee said he aims to sell the White Oak property next to the Municipal Center. The town has been working on this property for a year and a half, Lee said. The town acquired and remediated the 15 acres of land, which belonged to White Oak Construction, and is now awaiting the results of an environmental report. The town should have the report by the end of the month.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, White Oak was one of the largest construction companies in Connecticut; they were known for building bridges,” Lee said. “If we’re able to get this piece of land back on the tax market it could be a big opportunity for us. There are some limitations since the land falls within the 100-year flood plain, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build anything there. It is in a key spot and we have already had some people inquiring.”
The year will not be without its share of challenges, though. The costs of recycling, Lee said, have gone up considerably.
“This year they were twice what we budgeted,” he said. “It costs more for us to recycle than it costs to get rid of trash. There is an $87 a ton tip fee for recycling and it is only $65 for trash. The entire market is upside-down.”
Plainville will also have to replace several long-time staff members who are either retiring or accepting new positions. Fire Marshal Larry Sutherland, who has been with the town for 20 years, is retiring at the end of January. Long-time detective David Posadas, who worked for the town for 25 years, will be leaving to accept a state job. Patrick Buden, a long-time police officer, will be retiring at the end of January after 30 years of service to the town.
Scott Colby, assistant to the town manager, just accepted an assistant town manager position in Windsor and he will also be leaving at the end of the month. Marcy Miller, who worked in the Assessor’s Office for more than seven years, will be leaving to accept a similar position in Farmington.
“We’ll be looking to fill some big shoes,” said Lee. “That is going to take time and effort.”
Lee said he has an overall optimistic outlook as 2020 begins.
“I’m optimistic about where the town is at - unemployment is low in Connecticut and our unassigned fund balance increased since last year,” he said. “We’re in pretty decent shape. I encourage people to participate either by volunteering for town boards or volunteering at town events. We’re always looking for help in improving our town and making it a more vibrant community to live in.”

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