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CT Construction Digest Friday August 15, 2023

$1B cost, century-old bridge among obstacles in plan to expand CT rail service to RI, report finds 

John Moritz

Efforts to expand rail service in eastern Connecticut are likely to be constrained by towering costs and the limitations of a century-old rail bridge over the Thames River, according to a new assessment from the Connecticut Department of Transportation. 

The findings were the result of a study commissioned by state lawmakers in 2021 to examine the feasibility of extending existing commuter rail service beyond New London, including the creation of a branch line to Norwich and a future expansion of Shore Line East service to Rhode Island. A draft copy of that report, released last week, is now open for public comment. 

The startup costs for two new commuter routes  — which the report pegged at around $1 billion — as well as the region’s relatively sluggish pace of job growth were both cited as factors that could weigh against such an investment. 

Another significant hurdle is the need to share the Northeastern Corridor with Amtrak, which owns the tracks and is planning to increase the number of daily trains that it runs between New York and Boston. Expanding other existing services, including bus routes and paratransit, could provide a quicker and cheaper alternative to meeting the region’s needs, according to the report. 

“Transit investment could satisfy existing and future regional mobility needs, independent of any other long-term strategies like enhanced rail service,” the report said.

Ultimately, lawmakers have yet to approve any of the funding necessary to bring regular commuter rail service to the region. 

“This is a first step, as more analysis would be needed before any projects move forward, requiring detailed planning and significant capital investments for several years,” DOT spokesman Josh Morgan said in a statement Tuesday, adding that the agency planned to hold public meetings to solicit feedback later this month. 

Still, transit advocates and lawmakers said the department’s initial findings did little to dispel the idea that an expansion of rail service is not only feasible, but likely to bring significant benefits to the state and region. 

“I think we’ve long known that we want to have more transportation options in eastern Connecticut,”said state Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Madison, who serves as co-chair of the legislature’s Transportation Committee. “I think we want to make sure that there’s connectivity with other states so that we have sort of a throughway and the ability for folks to get where they need to be in a fast way." 

The area between New London and Rhode Island’s Wickford Junction is among the last remaining stretches of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor to lack parallel service from commuter rail. Officials from both Connecticut and Rhode Island have discussed the possibility of extending the existing Shore Line East Route across the border between the two states, according to the report, with Rhode Island officials seemingly open to ending the new route in Westerly.  

Transit advocates have long expressed the hope that an expansion could one day link rail service from Connecticut with Boston’s MBTA line, which officials have explored extending into southern Rhode Island

The Shore Line East route, however, has struggled to attract riders back following the pandemic, and Gov. Ned Lamont agreed to reduce service along the route earlier this year as part of a cost-cutting effort. Extending the route beyond its current terminus in New London with new stops in Groton, Mystic and Stonington would cost $245 million up front, plus an additional $52 million annually to operate, according to the report.

Because the existing rail bridge over the Thames River can only handle the addition of one commuter train in either direction, the report concluded that extending Shore Line East would preclude the state from opening a spur line into Groton or branch service along the eastern banks of the river. 

The second potential expansion that was deemed feasible by the report was the conversion of the existing freight lines on the western side of the river into a commuter route between New London and Norwich, with potential stops near the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and Montville’s Mohegan Sun Casino. 

The so-called Palmer Line — named for the destination of the tracks owned by the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad — would cost roughly $635 million up front, plus $33 million annually thereafter. 

Jim Cameron, the Darien-based president of the Commuter Action Group, said that the cost of creating a new branch line to Norwich appeared prohibitively expensive, especially given the planned service cuts along other rail corridors such as the state’s marquee New Haven Line. 

“I think that the priority should be to improve and to run the service that we have today, not necessarily be looking to expand it if we can't offer service on the lines that we have today,” Cameron said.  

Lawmakers approved $2.3 million for DOT’s two-year study of a potential rail expansion back in 2021. The next steps toward the development of expanded rail routes, which including planning, design, and construction, could take up to a decade or more, according to the initial findings.

Danbury renews hookup for power plant that’s become a ‘sensitive issue for thousands of residents’

Rob Ryser

DANBURY – Approved plans for an unbuilt 250-megawatt power plant on the west side that were in jeopardy because hookup permission to the city’s sewer and water system would expire came under criticism again by leaders who said residents are increasingly concerned about the project.

“While a power plant might have seemed like a good idea 15 years ago when there was nothing up there but empty space, the residents are beginning to question the validity of having a gas-fired power plant in their neighborhood,” said Paul Rotello, a City Council member who represents neighbors of the proposed power plant in the Reserve subdivision, during a public meeting at City Hall last week.

“The residents are not sure whether this fits into their neighborhood,” said Rotello, a Democrat and the council’s minority leader. “As a representative of that ward, I have to take their concerns seriously.”

But in the end, Rotello was outvoted by council members who said the project had been vetted and supported by city department heads.

The debate is the latest indication that some of Danbury’s newest residents are just as concerned about the impact of commercial growth on their quality of life as those who have lived in the city for a lifetime.

“It is a sensitive issue with thousands of residents,” said Emile Buzaid, a Republican City Council member, during a Sept. 6 public meeting. “There are two buildings that are in contention here, and as far as the power plant goes, if and when it goes in, it does not have any impact on the environment.”

Buzaid is referring to an approved high-technology campus planned for 23 acres on the Ridgefield border that first made headlines in 2015 when then-mayor Mark Boughton touted the $200 million project during his State of the City speech. The power plant and the two 30,000-square-foot buildings, which have shown no signs of being built, became news again two days after the 2021 election, when Republicans used their supermajority on the City Council to grant the developer a hookup to city sewer and water.

At the time, Rotello and Democrats were concerned most about the impact of a gas-fired electricity generator that would be so close to the proposed site of the city’s career academy. In late 2021, the school was still planned for the Summit office park. But since then, the city has broken ground for the 1,400-student career academy on a 24-acre hilltop on Apple Ridge Road, and there have been no signs of the power plant campus moving any closer to construction.

At a recent meeting of city leaders and department heads called to look into the developer’s request to renew its sewer and water hookup permit, a project engineer said the only progress that had been made are renovations to an office building on the site. When Rotello said he would prefer the developer to reapply for sewer and water hookup permission “when they are ready to build,” the engineer said, “Communication by individuals involved in the project has increased recently.”

At the public meeting last week, Rotello said he remained unconvinced.

“The people who live in the Reserve, the people who live in the surrounding community … would probably have some issues with a gas-fired power plant that employs jet engines … to produce electricity … not for the people in the Reserve but for the grid,” Rotello said. “This is not a reserve backup generator for the 3,000 people who live there. This backup generator (is) for the grid itself.”

The Connecticut state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection determined that the power plant could produce as much as 32 tons of air pollution annually but would not violate the 1990 federal Clean Air Act. Emissions from the generators would have an impact on air quality, however, DEEP said. As a result, the operator would have to pay a fee for every ton of nitrogen oxides that the plant releases.

Nitrogen oxides are the toxic byproduct of fuel that is burned at high temperatures and can help produce smog on hot summer days, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The technology campus received site plan approval from the city’s Planning and Zoning Department in 2020. The project also received a green light from the city’s Environmental Impact Commission.

“This is an important project, (and) a large project that has everybody’s attention. … Sifting through fact and fiction has really been a challenge,” Buzaid said during last week’s public meeting. “At this stage of the game, I am comfortable. I will be voting for this extension.”

Middletown mayor reveals where new City Hall would be on Main Street

Cassandra Day

MIDDLETOWN — A feasibility study committee tasked with finding a new spot for City Hall has identified the ideal future location for municipal offices. 

Officials have been looking at the former Citizens Bank corporate offices at 225-243 Main St. on the corner of College Street for some years. That location has at least 45,000 square feet available, as opposed to the 65-year-old deKoven Drive municipal building, which is some 35,000 square feet in size.

Middlesex Health’s administrative offices at 237 Main St. would be incorporated into the hospital’s Crescent Street building, Mayor Ben Florsheim said.

“It met so many needs we were looking for, at least on paper, for City Hall,” he said, including ample parking in the Middlesex Corporate Center garage off College Street, behind the building.

However, the move wouldn’t happen for some time, the mayor said.

The joint Russell Library and City Hall feasibility study committee also arrived at some potential locations for the 147-year-old library on Broad Street, a group of brownstone and brick structures that have been cobbled together over its many years of existence.

Sites that could be considered include the current City Hall site; 10 Main St., where Rite Aid was once located; the future parking arcade site near the Police Department; an open lot at Long Lane and Wadsworth Street; and a “wildcard,” according to library Director Ramona Burkey — the old Catalyst Church building on Newfield Street, across from Middletown High School.

Another option would be a brand-new facility at the current site.

Using the bank building would be “significantly” more cost effective than starting from scratch, Florsheim said, “which is probably what we would have to do anywhere else.”

The architect responsible for the original design of the bank is drawing up blueprints for new municipal offices, he added. “Once the committee looks at that, it will allow us to make an informed decision whether this is the right way to go," Florsheim said. 

The city’s municipal building, erected in 1958 at 245 deKoven Drive, has undergone additions and renovations over the decades, but storage and space have become issues there, the mayor has said.

The Main Street area has been undergoing a sort of renaissance as developers renovate and rebuild historic and vacant buildings, such as 505 Main St., the former roller skating rink, which is being revitalized by JR Carnegie-Hargreaves. 

Also, Dominick DiMartino is redeveloping 418-422, 423, as well as 584 Main St., the former Schlein’s Furniture building. The latter is where the old Woolworth's department store was located. 

“We’re in a place in Middletown where we’re doing a lot of investment in buildings and looking for structures and facilities,” the mayor explained. “We’re going to make sure that we do it in a thoughtful and fiscally responsible way. The challenge that we have is, we have a lot of aging buildings that are underinvested in."

The goal is to have public facilities that serve residents and others in a “meaningful way, that are welcoming, and make government a little bit easier to interact with and to access," he said. "The price of being in a building that’s falling apart and not meeting the public needs is also compounding every year."

Once the feasibility committee completes its task, Florsheim said, a City Hall building committee would be established. “It’s exciting to have a pretty promising start,” he added.

A bond referendum would be presented to voters in the future to at least partially pay for a new library or renovations there, as well as a new City Hall.

“Our historic practice has been to only take on new debt before we relinquish old debt and pay it back,” the mayor said. “We continue to maintain that 10-year payback schedule,” which, he said, is rather unique among cities and towns.

The key is to plan projects strategically, he said. “We’re going to continue that practice of paying off ‘the credit card’ every month, but not at the minimums. We’re only going to incur new debt as we pay the old debt off,” a method similar to how the city has used the $33.5 million 21st Century Parks Bond approved by voters in 2015.

“Right now, we are digging out of a hole of a lot of underinvested-din projects, and building and parks, but we’re on the right track,” he said.

The city could also be eligible for state and federal grants for these initiatives, Florsheim said. “There will be a cost to the city, and we have to make sure we’re smart about the timing of it.”

Returning the Middlesex Corporate Center garage to regular use, having fewer one-level parking lots downtown, as well as eventually being able to reuse the City Hall lot off deKoven Drive, is an “attractive prospect,” the mayor said.

The only disadvantage he foresees is that the new municipal building wouldn’t be a custom-built one. “The cost savings, advantages and locations remain to be seen pending final blueprints. It looks like there are a lot more advantages than drawbacks,” Florsheim said.

Siting council will not hold public hearing on Waterford data center

Daniel Drainville

Waterford ― The Connecticut Siting Council decided Thursday not to hold a public hearing on a controversial petition from Millstone owner Dominion Energy Nuclear Connecticut that would modify the boundaries of the Millstone property for use by proposed data center.

During the virtual meeting, council members voted 3-2 to deny the seven requests for a public hearing.

After making a motion to deny the hearing, Councilor Robert Silvestri said his understanding of the petition from Dominion is that it is seeking to adjust its boundaries by removing about 55 acres from what was previously the power station’s 546 acres.

Approval of the construction of the data center would instead be up to the town, he said.

“I appreciate the comments and requests that we have seen from the public, but from what I have determined, (the requests) are really focused on a data center and a switch yard.”

In February, the town agreed to a deal with NE Edge LLC that signaled it was open to the idea of hosting two two-story data buildings that would provide approximately 1.5 million square feet of storage for cloud and data servers. The centers would be supplied with energy from Millstone.

NE Edge would construct a third building, a switchyard, that would receive power from Millstone and distribute it to the data center.

Councilor John Morissette also voted to deny the requests for a public hearing, agreeing with Silvestri that the data center and switch yard were not related to the boundary change request.

But he did raise questions about the boundary change.

“Does it impact security? Why was the original 55 acres included in the original site as certificated? Was there a thought back then that the site would be used for another generator?” he asked.

He said those concerns could be answered through additional questions posed to Dominion by the siting council.

“I don’t think a hearing would help, primarily because I think it would get bogged down with the data center,“ Morissette said, adding that a hearing, if held, would have to be limited to discussion of the boundary request and ”the data center would be off limits.“

Council members set a deadline for a decision on the boundary request for Jan. 24, 2024