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CT Construction Digest Monday August 9, 2021

DOT outlines first phase of $330M highway interchange project in Meriden

Mary Ellen Godin, Record-Journal staff

State Department of Transportation officials outlined a construction timeline for the first of three phases of work to improve a convoluted interchange of major highways that converge in Meriden.

Officials fielded questions about a project to improve safety and reduce congestion on interstates 91 and 691, and routes 66 and 15 during a hearing Thursday night. The design phase and noise study are underway, requests for qualifications will go out in the fall, and requests for proposals at the end of the year. The design/build contract will be awarded next summer and construction is expected to begin in fall 2022. Work is slated to be completed in the spring of 2025. 

“This project is designed to improve safety and congestion,” said DOT project manager Sebastian Cannemela.

Over the course of three years, the DOT has recorded 90 crashes along I-91 northbound near the junction, with 17 injuries. Of those, 26 were rear end crashes indicative of congestion, 21 were sideswipe crashes, indicative of weaving, and 31 were fixed object collisions indicating a vehicle went off the road. 

The first phase of the project is estimated to cost $57 million and the overall cost of all three phases is estimated at around $330 million. Roughly 120,000 vehicles travel I-91 north daily, and 80,000 travel eastbound I-691, according to project engineers. 

The first phase includes making a two-lane connection eastbound from I-691 to I-91 north. The project involves widening the existing ramp from I-691 east to I-91 north to two lanes and widening I-91 north to accommodate an auxiliary lane from this interchange to the Middletown rest area.

Construction will be at off peak times, project officials said. Work consists of redesigning exit 11 on I-691 to add a lane and rebuild a two lane bridge at the merge to I-91 north. The Preston Avenue exit will also be reconfigured with two lanes and the existing bridge replaced.

Engineers don’t expect any lane closures during peak hours but commuters can expect the same construction disruptions as with other large highway projects.

Members of the public who attended the virtual hearing Thursday questioned project managers on noise, traffic and how the timeline of the three phases was decided.

Funding has a lot to do with setting priorities, Cannemela said. As a federal infrastructure bill moves forward in Congress, more funding could be available.

“At this time, this project is state funded,” Cannemela said. “The department has an opportunity to federalize the project at specific points. It’s going to be state funds until there are other funds available. The other two projects are expected to be state and federally funded.”

Exit 11 at the I-691/91 junction will expand from one lane to two lanes. Once the work is completed, the single-lane bridge will be demolished. Exit 12 of I-691 east at Preston Avenue will be widened to two lanes and the bridge also rebuilt.   

“At least we’ve started with this section,” said City Economic Development Director Joseph Feest. “And we’ve got a project number for the other two sections. That’s a positive sign that it’s going to keep going. We really still have problems with 91 north onto 691, but that’s in the plans. They’re not saying this project is fixing the area, it’s improving the area.”

Members of the public raised concerns about noise impact and the installation of sound barriers. 

“We are conducting the noise study,” said Sajjad Alam, project manager for Parsons design firm. “As part of the study we are developing a detailed noise model and part of that is the anticipated increased traffic. We anticipate the noise study will be completed by the end of 2021.”

The DOT is accepting comments on the project until Aug. 20. Comments may be directed to project officials by calling 860-944-1111. More details about the project are available at https://portal.ct.gov/DOT.meriden79-245.

The southbound second phase of the project is estimated to cost $145 million and begin in 2025. It involves widening I-91 south to provide an auxiliary lane from the vicinity of the Middletown rest area to the I-691 west exit, widening the I-91 southbound off-ramp to I-691 west to two lanes, and widening the I-691 eastbound off-ramp to Route 15 south to two lanes. 

The third phase is estimated to cost $110 million. Plans call for replacing the existing ramp connection from I-91 north to Route 15 north (Exit 17) with a new two-lane off-ramp from the existing off-ramp to East Main Street (exit 16). It also includes relocating the connection from Route 15 north to I-91 north approximately three quarters of a mile south of its present location and widening the existing off-ramp from Route 15 north to I-691 westbound to two lanes.

CT upping stake in fuel cell industry with new energy-purchase mandate

By Zachary Vasile

As Connecticut looks to strengthen its power grid and wean itself off fossil fuels, lawmakers and industry leaders have tended to focus on large-scale solar and wind-power projects, including the potentially revolutionary off-shore wind farms now set to be built in the Northeast by Eversource Energy and Danish power giant Orsted.

Somewhat less publicized has been the steady march of fuel cell technology, an electrochemical energy source that promises the reliability of conventional fuels alongside the minimal environmental impact of renewables. Once beset by prohibitively high costs, improving technology and rising production levels are making fuel cells more competitive than ever before.

And the industry has found a strong foothold in Connecticut, which is home to two major manufacturers, FuelCell Energy of Danbury and Doosan Fuel Cell America Inc. of South Windsor.

Together, those companies directly employ hundreds of people.

Now, the state is upping its investment in the sector with hopes of improving energy reliability and supporting the industry’s growth. Last month, Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law a bill requiring electric distribution companies — including Eversource and Avangrid — to purchase up to 30 megawatts of fuel cell generation projects by Jan. 1, 2022.

Experts predict the move will open new doors for fuel cell technology, increasing hydrogen power’s share of Connecticut’s energy mix while making standalone fuel cell projects more feasible.

In-state manufacturers will likely reap the most immediate benefits, opening up avenues for new growth as Connecticut works to rebound from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jason Few, president and CEO of FuelCell Energy, said every project his firm wins under the new law will be developed at the company’s manufacturing facility in Torrington, supporting local manufacturing, construction, engineering, scientific and administrative jobs. Few also pointed to the roughly 600 supply chain companies in Connecticut tied to the emerging hydrogen energy market.

“This will drive jobs and an economic resurgence while meaningfully addressing the very real challenge of climate change,” he said. “There is no reason the state of Connecticut can’t become the global headquarters for the hydrogen economy.”

Better reliability

Fuel cells convert the chemical energy of a fuel source into electricity through a series of reactions. Hydrogen, or fuels that can be converted into hydrogen, are most often used.

In contrast to traditional power plants, fuel cell reactions emit water, heat and, depending on the fuel source, very small amounts of other compounds.

The adaptability of the technology has proven to be its greatest selling point; today, fuel cells are used to power or partially power commercial buildings, homes, automobiles, buses, forklifts, boats and portable power systems, among numerous other applications.

A growing number of states are plugging fuel cells directly into their power grids, aiming to create reserves that can continue to produce and distribute electricity even when severe storms bring down electrical wires.

Fuel cells are also more environmentally friendly than traditional fossil fuels, making them understandably appealing to states like Connecticut, which, under a plan laid out by Lamont, will attempt to build a zero-carbon electric supply by 2040.

“Within the context of our energy landscape, we’ve typically been forced to choose between clean energy and baseload — historically things like coal,” Few said. “Fuel cells are something of a paradigm shift. Fuel cells mean we can deliver reliable baseload power without burning any fuel. Fuel cells can reliably power a city or factory, while outputting virtually zero [nitrogen oxides] or [sulfur oxides].”

Beyond the most recent energy procurement bill, industry experts see opportunities for even broader deployment of fuel cell technology.

Joel Rinebold, director of energy at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, said fuel cells will likely one day be used to overcome the challenges inherent in intermittent solar and wind power assets, which can only produce electricity when the sun is shining or wind is blowing.

“They could be synced up,” Rinebold said. “Those facilities can be used to make hydrogen, and then the hydrogen would power the fuel cells. It’s a very nice complement to provide clean, reliable energy.”

There’s also the opportunity for larger buildings such as schools or hospitals to acquire their own fuel cells to keep the lights on in the event of a powerful storm or other emergency.

“The advantage is that they can be sited within the community without the emissions or pollution associated with other fuel sources,” Rinebold said.

Challenges, opportunities

Still, fuel cells remain somewhat constrained by cost, and the fact that hydrogen itself is often produced using fossil fuels, which weighs against its green credentials. Connecticut has also set far more ambitious goals for other kinds of energy technology.

“We have a law that calls for 1,000 megawatts of battery power,” said Lee Hoffman, an attorney at Pullman & Comley who specializes in energy law. “Compare that to 30 megawatts for fuel cells. It’s a relatively low figure.”

According to Hoffman, fuel cells often lose out to solar and wind on a price-per-kilowatt basis, and they only tend to get built when there are specific government-mandated procurements. On the other hand, fuel cells, unlike solar panels and wind turbines, can provide continuous power, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also don’t take up as much space as traditional renewable projects and can be built where solar and wind farms can’t be.

“There are advantages, but you end up paying for those advantages,” he said.

The best application for fuel cells at this point, Hoffman said, might be in the construction of microgrids, small pockets of generation sources capable of breaking off from the main electric grid. In the event the main grid goes down, microgrids can continue to provide power for essential services, such as an emergency shelter or fire station, he said. 

Senators on left, right hold together to push infrastructure


WASHINGTON (AP) — Often elusive, the political center is holding steady in the Senate as a coalition of Democratic and Republican senators brushes off critics to push the $1 trillion infrastructure package toward final passage.

On the left, the Democrats have withstood the complaints of liberals who say the proposal falls short of what’s needed to provide a down payment on one of President Joe Biden’s top priorities.

From the right, the Republicans are largely ignoring the criticism from their most conservative and far-flung voices, including a barrage of name-calling from former President Donald Trump as he tries to derail the package.

All told, some 70 senators appear poised to carry the bipartisan infrastructure bill to passage, a potentially robust tally of lawmakers eager to tap the billions in new spending it will unleash for public works projects back home.

“This is something that brings this country together,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a lead negotiator. “We need the investment, let’s be honest.”

Senators hoisted the package over another hurdle late Sunday, easily clearing a remaining 60-vote threshold on a vote of 68-29, despite a few holdouts trying to run out the clock on debate and drag final passage to Tuesday. The measure would then go to the House.

“A very handsome, overwhelming vote,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

The rare bipartisan momentum reflects a political power center that has sprung from the middle of the aisle in the narrowly split Congress. For weeks, senators have negotiated and shaped the package, overcoming partisan gridlock for a compromise with the Biden White House. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers has pledged its own support.

Backed by Biden and a sizable coalition of business, farm, labor and public interest groups, the package is one of the biggest investments of its kind in years. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act seeks to inject nearly $550 billion in new spending on roads, bridges, broadband internet, water pipes and other public works systems undergirding the nation. Some 20 Republican senators are poised to join Democrats in supporting support it.

Look at the players,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. “These are not the fringes of both parties.”

Once voting wraps up, senators immediately will turn to the budget outline for a $3.5 trillion package of child care, elder care and other programs that is a much more partisan undertaking and expected to draw only Democratic support.

Despite the momentum, action ground to a halt over the weekend when Sen. Bill Hagerty, a Tennessee Republican allied with Trump, refused to speed up the process.

Hagerty, who had been Trump's ambassador to Japan, argued for taking as much time as needed for debate and amendments, in part because he wants to slow the march toward Biden's $3.5 trillion bill aimed at so-called soft infrastructure

Trump called Hagerty on Sunday morning, said a person familiar with the call who requested anonymity to discuss it. Hagerty said later Sunday he was trying to prevent a “socialist debt bomb” of new government spending.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has so far allowed the bill to progress, calling the bill “a compromise.”

Senators have spent the past week processing nearly two dozen amendments to the 2,700-page package, but so far none has substantially changed its framework.

More amendments have been offered on cryptocurrency, defense-related infrastructure and to allow states to repurpose a portion of their untapped federal COVID-19 relief aid for infrastructure. But it's unclear if they will be considered for votes.

Senators have found much to like in the bill, even though it does not fully satisfy liberals, who view it as too small, or conservatives, who find it too large.

An analysis of the bill from the Congressional Budget Office drew concerns, particularly from Republicans after concluding the legislation would increase deficits by about $256 billion over the next decade.

Unlike Biden's bigger $3.5 trillion package, which would be paid for by higher tax rates for corporations and the wealthy, the bipartisan package is funded by repurposing other money, and other spending cuts and revenue streams. The bill’s backers argued that the budget office was unable to take into account certain revenue streams — including from future economic growth.

The House is expected to consider both Biden infrastructure packages when it returns from recess in September.

Utility work to replace mile-long water main in Ridgefield starting soon

Alyssa Seidman

RIDGEFIELD — Aquarion will begin work Monday to replace more than a mile of water main on West Mountain Road and Peaceable Ridge Road on the west side of town. The project is aimed at improving system reliability and is expected to be completed by June 2022.

Since the water main on Peaceable Ridge is at least 75 years old, it’s “very limited” at providing adequate service to that area of town, First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. The current line is too small to handle the capacity of newer homes on the street, he explained, noting that some homeowners there rely on well water.

“This will give those homes an opportunity to tie into public water, which is good,” he said.

Recent development on adjoining Eleven Levels Road has also caused insufficient water pressure, Marconi said. Aquarion installed two standpipes in the area several years ago, which, in tandem with the new water main, will enhance water pressure and overall quality.

Peter Fazekas, Aquarion’s director of Corporate Communications, said the project would also standardize the system by replacing existing service lines that run through various yards in the neighborhood. The company currently services 40 homes in that area, and could potentially service another 40 homes with the new infrastructure in place.

Aquarion plans to meet with each impacted homeowner ahead of time to determine if they are interested in tapping into the upgraded system.

The project will replace approximately 6,000 feet of underground pipes. Workers will score the road one section at a time to excavate the existing infrastructure, install the new one and then seal the section with a temporary patch, Fazekas said.

“Peaceable Ridge is ... all rock, so they’re going to have to blast down through there because a water line needs to be approximately six feet deep,” Marconi said. “If you’re doing 6,000 feet, figure at least 15 weeks.”

Fazekas said the work would occur in sections to “limit the disruption for the customers.” Construction will take place between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, so residents should expect traffic delays and detours.

Marconi said West Mountain Road would be open for alternating one-way traffic for the duration of the project, and anticipates that drivers will have to wait.

“There are gonna be inconveniences but it’s an improvement that we want,” he added. “It will be providing badly needed service to that area of town that’s been long overdue.”

If Aquarion is able to work through the winter, Fazekas said, the project will be completed sooner than June 2022.

Customers can sign up to receive notifications about the utility work at www.aquarionwater.com/alerts. Project updates such as construction status, weekly schedules, changes in traffic patterns and detours will be posted to the town’s Facebook page.

Customers with project-related questions can contact Project Manager Bill Dwinells at (203) 337-5906. For service or water-related issues, call Aquarion Customer Service at 1-800-732-9678.

CT’s budget picture is rosy now. Did Lamont create it — or did he inherit it?

Keith M. Paneuf

Since he took office 2 1/2 years ago, Gov. Ned Lamont has watched the cash pour into Connecticut’s coffers. Even a coronavirus-induced recession couldn’t stop analysts from forecasting big surpluses for the next two years.

But much of that good fortune is due to a tax system and other policies Lamont inherited.

Now, as another gubernatorial election cycle nears, the question looms: Who is responsible for Connecticut’s recent, relative budget prosperity?

“I didn’t expect that,” Lamont said of the billions of extra tax receipts that have poured in since he became governor. “I just knew that economic growth was the key.”

According to the Department of Labor, Connecticut is still down about 100,000 jobs from pre-pandemic levels, but state tax receipts have boomed regardless for two other reasons: 

First, the stock market has largely defied the pandemic. The Dow Jones Industrial Average opened this week 35% higher than it stood on March 4, 2020, just before COVID-19 struck Connecticut.

Second, massive supplemental federal unemployment benefits left many jobless residents with more money over the past year than when they were working. And since much of those benefits are taxable, state income tax receipts remained strong as well.

That’s not to say Lamont has played no role in keeping finances in line. Pushing legislators to adhere to spending and borrowing caps, he has refused to tap state reserves during his first 30 months on the job. The rainy day fund has more than doubled and now exceeds $3 billion under Lamont, who also has channeled more than $1.4 billion in surpluses into the cash-starved pension funds.

And he’s frequently reminded lawmakers that the stock market, which has contributed greatly to the recent budget success, can turn on a dime.

“Bull markets, I guarantee you, always come to an end,” he said. “And this has been a long one.”

Malloy’s budgetary luck was the opposite of Lamont’s

But his good fortune — as far as state government finances are concerned — is undisputed, and pretty much the opposite of his predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

A Fairfield County Democrat like Lamont, Malloy came into office in 2011 with a state budget on pace for an unprecedented 18% deficit.

Put another way, a General Fund of about $18 billion — without adjustments — was projected to run more than $3.6 billion in the red.

And while Lamont started with $1.2 billion in the rainy day fund, Malloy began with an empty reserve, $1 billion in operating debt (left by Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the 2010 legislature ) and 9% unemployment — courtesy of the Great Recession.

Malloy took massive heat when he and the legislature enacted more than $1.8 billion in annual tax increases in his first year, one of the single-largest revenue bumps in state history.

This was compounded by the fact that actual tax receipts didn’t meet nonpartisan analysts’ projections during five of Malloy’s first six years in office as Connecticut muddled through one of the slowest recoveries in state history, according to records from the state comptroller’s office.

“It became somewhat of a shock to all of us,” said Hamden Democrat J. Brendan Sharkey, who was House majority leader and later speaker between 2011 and 2016. “There was a slow-moving realization that the Great Recession was like no other.”

The state’s unemployment rate wouldn’t dip below 5% until 2016 — a problem Malloy’s critics blamed on the taxes. But Connecticut hadn’t experienced any net new job gains since the 1980s, having failed for decades before to invest heavily in transportation, information technology infrastructure or cutting-edge industries.

“Complacency was the name of the game from 1990 until 2008” and the Great Recession, said University of Connecticut economist Fred V. Carstensen. “We were coming off this period when we were fat and lazy and didn’t need to do anything. … We were The Land of Steady Habits, but a lot of them were bad habits.”

“I understood how bad things were,” Malloy said. “It was not a normal recovery. But did I expect it to take six years? No.” (After losing 120,000 jobs in the Great Recession, Connecticut had regained only about 90,000 by the time the pandemic struck in March 2020.)

A second round of major tax hikes was ordered in 2015 — despite campaign pledges from Malloy and from his GOP challenger Tom Foley that the budget could be balanced without more revenue from households and businesses.

Income tax hikes of 2011, 2015 pay big dividends now

“Who wouldn’t want an easy solution? But the reality is our problems are too big for easy solutions,” Malloy said. “I knew people weren’t happy. I didn’t run for office to make people happy.”

And while that second tax increase pushed Malloy’s limited popularity to a new low, it also completed the budgetary foundation that had been laid in 2010.

Since its inception in 1991, Connecticut’s income tax had largely been flat, taxing most earnings at 4.5% and then later at 5%. The legislature and Rell would tax earnings above $500,000 for singles and $1 million for couples at 6.5% starting in 2009 — but only for income above that threshold.

In other words, a couple earning $2 million per year only would pay 6.5% on the second million. The first million would still be taxed at lower rates.

Under Malloy, the income tax would become significantly more progressive.

It was expanded to include seven marginal rates, topping out at 6.99%.

More importantly, it included a “recapture” provision that ensures the wealthiest households pay the top income tax rate on all of their earnings — not on just a portion.

And when Wall Street began to finally rebound in a big way in 2018, the new rate structure pushed income tax receipts up quickly — even with sluggish job growth. That’s because nearly one-third of Connecticut’s income tax revenues come not from paycheck withholding but from quarterly returns — which are dominated by capital gains and other investment earnings.

The state income tax and pass-through entity levy — an income tax on small business owners — generated $11.7 billion last fiscal year, 30% more than they did just four years ago.

That’s enabled Lamont to amass the maximum-allowed rainy day fund — a little more than $3 billion or 15% of annual operating expenses — and generally avoid major tax hikes during his first three budgets.

Did the GOP create CT’s current budgetary success?

But Republicans say those who focus closely on Malloy or Lamont to explain the currently flush budget situation are wrong.

“The [good] fortune has nothing to do with either one of the them,” said Liz Kurantowicz, a Republican political strategist.

Simply voting for tax increases or generating big tax receipts does not translate into budget success, she and other Republicans argue.

In fact, Connecticut’s history throughout the 1990s and 2000s is littered with fiscal problems despite many years of robust tax receipts.

State government ran up $6.1 billion in budget surpluses between 2000 and 2014, according to nonpartisan analysts. Only one-third of it, $2.1 billion, was placed in the budget reserve. The rest was spent — and none of those expenditures involved deposits into the pension funds to reduce debt in this area.

Why haven’t the recent surpluses been spent on new programs and on pet projects in lawmakers’ home districts? Republicans say the answer can be found four years ago.

And as liberal and moderate Democrats struggled for months — unsuccessfully — to reach a budget deal with Malloy, or amongst themselves, in 2017, the Republicans were brought in to craft a bipartisan package.

The GOP agreed, but also insisted that Malloy — whose popularity was waning — be excluded from the negotiations.

The longest-running budget debate in modern state history would wrap in late October with both parties backing a new budget — and a provision that’s become known as the “volatility adjustment.”

This mechanism forces the state to save a significant portion of income tax receipts tied to investments earnings, which can fluctuate greatly from year to year. Since its enactment, that volatility adjustment has taken $4.1 billion in potential spending out of the legislature’s hands.

“We were taking the good times for granted,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “Very frankly, Gov. Lamont has been the beneficiary of that bipartisan budget.”

Sen. John Fonfara, a Hartford Democrat, spearheaded the push for the volatility adjustment.

But North Haven Republican Len Fasano, who was Senate Minority Leader in 2017, said it was the GOP that used its leverage to ensure not only the savings provision, but newer-and-tougher caps on spending and borrowing were enacted.

“It’s amazing what it has done for the state,” Fasano said. “It’s very satisfying to see that, because it shows, with a bipartisan deal, what can happen.”

New Britain Democrat Joe Aresimowicz, who was House speaker from 2017 through 2020, said Republican recollections are skewed, and many from both parties fought for the fiscal reforms that made a big difference in 2017.

“We [all] made the tough choices and it was always while hoping we would come out on the better side,” he said. “It was the most challenging, frustrating but rewarding and satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.”