CT Construction Digest Monday December 12, 2022
New London State Pier construction manager, contracts to face state scrutiny
Members of the State Contracting Standards Board announced Friday that they plan to investigate how one construction company was able to recommend itself for more than $87 million in subcontracts for the renovation of the State Pier in New London.
The board, which is responsible for scrutinizing state business deals and reviewing Connecticut’s procurement laws, said they received several formal complaints in recent weeks regarding Kiewit Corporation, which is serving as both the construction manager and a subcontractor on the state pier project.
The Connecticut Mirror published a story last month that revealed how the Connecticut Port Authority authorized Kiewit, which is headquartered in Nebraska, to oversee the multimillion-dollar project and to simultaneously compete with other companies to build portions of the new pier.
That setup empowered Kiewit to develop the criteria for each subcontract, to judge the various bids that were submitted by its competitors and to make recommendations about which contractor should be hired by the state.
Public records reviewed by the CT Mirror showed that Kiewit recommended itself for five separate subcontracts under the project, including two instances where another construction firm submitted a lower-priced bid to the state.
Those recommendations were then approved by the Port Authority and AECOM, another consultant hired by the state.
Members of the State Contracting Standards Board said those circumstances raised concerns over the fairness of the bidding process and possible conflicts of interest.
Those same concerns were shared by Kevin Blacker, a constant critic of the Port Authority, and Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton — both of whom sent letters to the State Contracting Standards Board.
“There is a lot here, unfortunately, that we need to look into,” Lawrence Fox, the chairman of the State Contracting Standard Board, said during the meeting on Friday.
“I think we need to do an in-depth look at what is going on,” he added.
The board, Fox said, was likely to explore all of the subcontracts that Kiewit was awarded under the state pier project.
He said the contacting board was also likely to look at why the Port Authority gave Kiewit the ability to serve as construction manager and a subcontractor, and whether that decision was legal under Connecticut law.
There is a statute on the books that prohibits construction management firms from bidding on subcontracts for the projects they are overseeing for the state.
Officials at the Port Authority, however, told the Mirror that law does not apply to the State Pier project and is relevant only to construction work that is being overseen by the state Department of Administrative Services.
As a result, the Port Authority chose in early 2021 to pay Kiewit to manage the project and allowed the firm to bid on other work for the new pier.
Officials with the Port Authority did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment for this story.
But Teresa Shada, spokeswoman for Kiewit, said any review would confirm that the company followed all of the necessary bidding procedures.
“We take our role as construction manager-at-risk on the Connecticut State Pier project very seriously,” Shada said. “From the earliest stages of the process to where we are today, Kiewit Infrastructure Co. has been fully transparent with the Connecticut Port Authority and its construction administrator, AECOM.”
“All of our actions have been in full compliance with the contract and the law, and we strongly believe any reviews will confirm that,” she added. “We stand firmly behind our long-standing reputation of operating with the highest integrity and being a highly-principled, industry-leading contractor.”
Gov. Ned Lamont’s office also did not immediately respond to questions about whether he thought it was appropriate for the State Contracting Standards Board to open such an investigation or whether his administration would support such a probe.
Members of the State Contracting Standards Board said they already have a committee in place that is responsible for scrutinizing the Port Authority, which has had other ethics and contracting problems in the past.
But Fox said the new review was unlikely to start until after the board can hire full-time staff members to fill several new positions, which were funded by the legislature earlier this year.
Fox also floated the possibility of the State Contracting Standards Board teaming up with the state Auditors of Public Accounts as part of the inquiry.
“We are going to get into this in a very big way, because it’s very important,” Fox said.
Andrew Brown is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2022 © The Connecticut Mirror.
BRIDGEPORT — The city, for now, has failed to obtain highly competitive state funds needed to complete a key East End economic redevelopment project and to launch a pair of other significant plans in the downtown area.
"We had about $800 million to $900 million (worth) of applications," said state Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, of the demand for the new Community Investment Fund dollars, a program the state legislature created last year.
Mayor Joe Ganim's administration had applied to the CIF for: $4.4 million to help local developer Anthony Stewart finish his Honey Locust Square commercial site in the East End; $8.1 million to prepare the former AGI Rubber company on Stratford Avenue between the East Side and downtown for redevelopment, also by Stewart; and a massive $100 million to help restore a pair of shuttered historic downtown theaters that Ganim, up for reelection next year, pledged to renovate and reopen when campaigning back in 2015.
Felipe and state Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, sit on the 21-member board of legislators and other state officials set up to help distribute the CIF fund. That pot of money — $875 million total, spread out through 2030 — was established by Connecticut lawmakers in 2021 to funnel aid to projects/initiatives that will benefit underserved and marginalized communities; people who live in rural areas; and people otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.
Like other state borrowing, the CIF board's recommendations have to be approved by the governor-chaired State Bond Commission, which met Thursday to authorize spending on some CIF proposals and other unrelated projects.
Felipe beforehand confirmed that Honey Locust Square, AGI and the Majestic and Poli Palace theaters had not made the CIF board's inaugural list, but noted applications are due in early January for a second round. Felipe said the board's goal is to spend around $175 million per year.
The biggest of the Ganim administration's three requests — funding for the theaters — was considered a long shot. Felipe and some City Council members in August expressed skepticism over it being made a priority and that the $100 million ask would be taken seriously by the CIF board.
“For the needs we have in our city, I don’t know that that’s the best cause," City Councilman Scott Burns, a co-chairman of that body's economic development committee, told staff with Bridgeport's economic development office at the time.
The Ganim administration had previously struck an agreement with New York City-based Exact Capital to revive the theaters and build on some neighboring downtown properties, a deal the mayor aggressively touted during his failed 2018 gubernatorial campaign. But Exact's project, which had been in financial trouble even before the global coronavirus pandemic struck Connecticut in early 2020, was formally dead by spring 2021.
City Hall has since switched tactics, claiming public dollars must first be invested in restoring the Majestic and Poli Palace, which Bridgeport has owned for over three decades, in order to attract private interest.
Felipe this week said he "wouldn't discourage" the Ganim administration from reapplying to the CIF in January, but added, "I would say if priorities were to be made, AGI and Honey Locust Square do squarely fit the intent of what this fund is. That would be the better use of the funds.”
Ganim's economic development department did not respond to a request for comment.
The East End-raised Stewart’s Ashlar Construction was selected in 2018 to transform the dilapidated commercial block on Stratford Avenue between Newfield and Central avenues into what he has dubbed Honey Locust Square. The plan includes a grocery store residents have for years requested, a restaurant and other retail space.
Construction has been slow, something Stewart has blamed on coronavirus-related delays and the rising cost of construction supplies. Then over the summer, William Coleman, Bridgeport's deputy head of economic development, revealed that Stewart had enough money "to complete the shells of the buildings" but not some of the interior work.
So the city applied for roughly $2.4 million from the CIF to finish Honey Locust Square and another $2 million to improve the public infrastructure around it, like burying the utilities and other streetscape improvements.
Stewart this week confirmed, "We're going to reapply." He said work continues — "we're there every day" — and his hope would be to compete Honey Locust Square by next September.
"I'd like to go faster but c'est la vie," Stewart said.
Meanwhile he has for about two years been in talks with the city to erect an apartment tower and a restaurant at 141 Stratford Ave., East Side property on the outskirts of downtown where once stood the vacant AGI Rubber Co. factory that became notorious for catching fire in recent years.
But before Stewart and the city enter into that redevelopment agreement, the latter hoped to obtain $8.1 million in CIF dollars to: complete the environmental cleanup there; raise the land, which borders the Pequonnock River, so it will not flood; build a seawall; and construct a public accessway along the water.
"The deal doesn't work without the site being cleaned up," Stewart said.
Farmington voters overwhelmingly approve additional $9.7 million for high school
FARMINGTON — Voters overwhelmingly approved an additional $9.7 million for the construction of a new Farmington High School Thursday.
The unusual December referendum passed 1,787 to 815 with 12.9 percent of the registered voters in Farmington showing up to the polls. This vote was the second time Farmington voters have been asked to approve money for the high school's construction.
In June 2021, voters passed the referendum for a $135.6 million appropriation for construction of a new 239,000 square-foot high school on Moneith Drive, including the demolition of the existing building and some site changes.
C.J. Thomas, chair of the Farmington Town Council, said he was pleased with the outcome of the referendum vote.
"It was an odd day in December," Thomas said. "It's who shows up to vote. The 13 percent was a good sign for a non-municipal, non-national vote."
At a meeting last week, residents were divided over the request for additional funds, one saying he felt "cheated by misinformation." Building committee members attributed the need for an extra $9.7 million to inflation and supply chain issues.
Thomas said the overall municipal cost for the project was slightly less than at the time of the June 2021 referendum due to increased state funding, which may have assuaged some residents' fears.
As a result of the approved referendum, the tax burden caused by the project will increase from $466 over five years to $491 over that period for the average taxpayer. The increase is driven by the higher interest rate on the assumed debt service for the new high school, according to the project website.
The construction of the new high school will demolish "substantially all" of the existing structure, according to the referendum question. Only the 900 wing and the 1928 wing will remain. The cost also includes renovations to the 900 wing.
Infrastructure Train Kept Chugging In Challenging Year
Granite prices were soaring. Same with asphalt and concrete.
The Great Peanut, alas, would have to wait.
New Haven was supposed to begin construction earlier this year on the peanut — a new squooshed roundabout with a novel design at the treacherous intersection of Chapel Street and Yale Avenue near the Westville Music Bowl and Yale Bowl. (Read a story about the project here.)
Those soaring prices delayed it. A local contractor had won the bid for the project. But those high prices meant he could no longer afford to do the job.
“We understood. We’re not here to put someone into bankruptcy. We can’t force someone to do it,” said City Engineer Giovanni Zinn.
So New Haven had to delay the projects for months. It had to negotiate a new contract with a new company, finalize plans and approvals.
And it did. As 2022’s end neared, a construction crew did appear at the intersection. Work got underway on the latest effort to make New Haven’s streets safer and save lives.
Now multiply that incident thirtyfold — and you get a sense of the many “infrastructure” projects Zinn’s team keeps on top of at any one time and hustles each day to keep on track amid customary bureaucratic approval delays along with unexpected obstacles like soaring inflation and supply chain breakdowns.
Those latter factors were the story of the year in infrastructure, worldwide. Projects were shelved or sidelined because of the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine War, Covid-spawned shipping and productions bottlenecks, and double-digit inflation. HVAC parts and fire alarm strobes once available at local stores now require a 12 to 18-week ordering wait; electrical parts that used to come within 12 weeks can be delayed as long as a year.
The Great Peanut also reflected the flip side of that 2022 coin: Infrastructure upgrades proceeded throughout town despite those obstacles.
Zinn offered an annual infrastructure update Tuesday during a visit to WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program.
City-hired crews repaired some 200 isolated broken sidewalks along with about a dozen longer stretches of sidewalk, boosting local minority-owned business in the process.
It transformed three underused, rundown park structures into new neighborhood youth and community centers, with three more in the short-term works and two-others longer term. (Read about that here.)
Long-awaited upgraded tennis courts reopened in Edgewood Park along with new pickleball nets.
The rebuilt Grand Avenue Bridge reopened, along with three new pedestrian bridges in the woods of West Rock.
After years of delays, most of the Edgewood-to-Downtown cycletrack opened. The eastern portion remains unfinished because of those supply chains: The city’s waiting on a traffic signal controller because a manufacturer is months behind on orders. Zinn worked around the supply disruption to open the first portion by finding unused poles in the city storage to replace ordered ones that were unavailable.
Zinn said the city also learned a lesson from that project: Drivers get confused when you use planters to separate bike lanes from traffic lines. The planters near Edgewood School have been repeatedly toppled. “I don’t think we’re going to see planters citywide” at other “safe-streets” cycletracks. Raised bike/pedestrian lanes seem to have worked better: “Drivers understand the area above the curb is not theirs. It’s easier for people to parse.”
Looking ahead to 2023, Zinn expects the city to repair structural problems with the Humphrey Street bridge and begin a years-long process for larger repairs to the Ferry Street bridge including replacing the deck and addressing corrosion that had been painted over in a previous renovation. Actual work should begin on state-funded projects to make major corridors safer (from Valley Street to Quinnipiac Avenue) now that the city is completing a required preliminary “coring” sample process to determine what’s under the road. The city’s first electric trash truck is expected to arrive. That peanut should be completed early in the year. And look for new “safe streets” fixes along with sports upgrades at Rice and Blake Fields.
Also look for the public to keep demanding better infrastructure. It has become a hot topic in New Haven.
“There’s an understanding that infrastructure is about connection,” Zinn reflected. “The point of infrastructure is not to have a nice sidewalk or a nice bridge or a nice street just for the sake of that,” but also to “connect people to each other, to opportunity, to recreation.”
DOT to hold online public meeting Tuesday on plan to replace Lawler Lane bridge in Norwich
Norwich ― The state Department of Transportation will hold an online-only public information forum Tuesday on a $7.5 million plan to replace the Lawler Lane bridge over Interstate 395 starting in 2024.
Members of the public can attend the meeting either on Zoom, through the DOT’s YouTube channel or by telephone. Anyone who wishes to participate in the meeting must register in advance. A question-and-answer session will be held following DOT officials’ presentation on the project.
The 165-foot-long bridge was built in 1958 and rehabilitated in 1992 and 2017. DOT inspectors deemed the bridge deck and superstructure to be in poor condition, with cracks and extensive rust. A recent inspection by the DOT Bridge Safety and Evaluation Unit showed a large area of concrete deterioration, prompting the agency to recommend replacing the bridge instead of rehabilitating the structure, DOT officials said in a posted notice on Tuesday’s meeting.
The project is expected to take one construction season and will be funded with state dollars.
To register for the Zoom session, go to the project page on the DOT website at https://portal.ct.gov/dot/projects/0103-0277-norwich. The meeting will be livestreamed on the DOT YouTube channel, and the recording of the meeting will be available on that channel following the meeting. To join the meeting by phone, call (877) 853-5257.
The public comment period on the project will be open until Dec. 27. Send comments to DOTProject103firstname.lastname@example.org or by voicemail to (860) 594-2020. Contact Project Manager Jonathan Kempf at (860) 594-3308 or by email to Jonathan.Kempf@ct.gov.