CT Construction Digest Monday January 11, 2021
After nearly a year of unprecedented disruption, Connecticut’s flagship airport has made significant changes in anticipation that the coronavirus crisis will continue to tamp down air travel in 2021.
As it contends with slashed levels of airline service, Bradley International Airport has cut costs in a number of areas in response to its declining revenues. The financial strain will not dissipate in 2021, but airport officials are hopeful that the adjustments will safeguard the Windsor Locks hub’s finances and persuade airlines to make long-term commitments.
“All of the airlines have indicated that they plan to emerge from the pandemic much smaller carriers,” Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, which owns and operates Bradley, said in an interview. “The competition that was always there prepandemic is only going to get more intense to convince an airline to put their limited assets into your airport. We’re focused on positioning ourselves appropriately so airlines say, ‘Let’s put the aircraft in Bradley.’”
Fewer passengers — and fewer flights
Since the start of the pandemic, airports and airlines have been grappling with steep decreases in demand.
A total of about 2.1 million travelers passed through Bradley in the first 10 months of 2020, down 63 percent from the same period in 2019.
Activity picked up during the holidays, but by a wide margin the numbers still trailed the previous year’s turnout. From Dec. 18 to Jan. 3, about 64,000 passengers were screened at Bradley, down 63 percent from a year ago.
The dwindling passenger counts have inevitably led to greatly reduced airline service. At times in the past 10 months, Bradley’s daily flight volume has plunged more than 50 percent from levels before the pandemic, according to CAA officials.
Reflecting the severe restrictions on international travel, Aer Lingus and Air Canada have suspended their service at Bradley. Domestic carriers American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue, Spirit Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines are still operating there.
CAA officials expect Aer Lingus and Air Canada to resume service when the pandemic abates.
“All of them are scaling operations based on the level of demand,” Dillon said. “When your demand is off by 75 percent, that leads to a substantial reduction in activity on the part of the airlines.”
Bradley had added a number of routes in the past few years, including the 2016 launch of Aer Lingus service with direct flights to and from Dublin.
New York’s Westchester County Airport is another regional aviation hub that has made major changes in the past year. Delta and United have suspended their service there, but they might resume within the next couple of months, according to airport officials. American and JetBlue are still operating there.
In October, the airport recorded an average of 57 weekly departures, compared with about 270 before the pandemic.
Transportation Security Administration officials said last week that they expect daily passenger traffic to rise steadily and “follow seasonal patterns.” But they anticipate that volumes will remain well below prepandemic levels through most of 2021, an outlook shared by Dillon.
“I don’t see any meaningful recovery starting until the end of 2021,” he said. “I think our recovery is going to be very much tied to vaccine distribution.”
Tightening the belt
Bradley is facing financial pressure amid the drop-off in flight activity. In the quarter from April 1, 2020, to June 30, 2020, revenues fell about $10 million short of projections.
In response, the airport has reined in costs with an initial 10 percent cut in operating expenses and then an additional 10 percent cut, a hiring freeze, as well as deferred salary increases for non-union staff.
The airport has not made layoffs since the start of the coronavirus crisis. The CAA employs about 150, the vast majority of whom are based at Bradley.
“One of the reasons we’re making the adjustments we’re making is to avoid layoffs,” Dillon said. “At the start of this pandemic, I made a commitment to folks that we would work hard to protect their health by putting different safety measures in place at the airport. Second to that, we would work to protect their jobs.”
Bradley covers its expenses with revenues that include airlines’ landing fees, passenger-parking fees and contributions from rental-car companies and terminal concessions. It does not receive any money from the state’s general fund.
“We’re struggling with substantial budget deficits. And, at the same time, we’re trying to make sure we keep the cost to the airlines as reasonable as possible,” Dillon said. “That’s going to be the continuing challenge, through 2021, until we get to that point of meaningful recovery.”
Despite deferring about $22 million of capital improvements, the airport is moving ahead with the construction of an approximately $210 million transportation center. The project includes about 850 parking spaces, a consolidated rental-car facility and a dedicated area for taxis, limousines, buses and a potential rail connection. The work is scheduled to be completed in 2022.
“It was so far advanced at the start of the pandemic that we would have been in a worse position by trying to curtail the work at that point,” Dillon said.
Business leaders in the state are heartened by the airport’s long-term planning.
“They were heading in the right direction,” said Chris DiPentima, CEO and president of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association. “If they can keep their foot somewhat on the gas, they’re going to come out stronger and better. And I think the Connecticut economy will come out stronger and better.”
Joe Wojtas Stonington — The Board of Finance has approved a $50,000 expenditure to make temporary repairs to the deteriorated Lantern Hill Road bridge in concert with the Town of Ledyard.
Without the repairs, town officials say the bridge would have to close to all traffic in six months.
“This buys us time so we’re not closing the bridge in six months,” First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough told the board Wednesday night.
Even with the temporary repairs, the bridge will not be open to large vehicles, such as firetrucks and dump trucks, because it cannot safely handle larger loads. But it will extend the life of the span for another five to 10 years.
During that time the town could decide whether to replace the bridge and how to obtain state and federal funding for the work.
It would have cost the town $20,000 to close the bridge because of the need for signs and creating a turnaround area. It would cost an additional $250,000 to repair the bridge to the point where it could accommodate large trucks.
Chesebrough told the finance board that Ledyard Mayor Fred Allyn III has agreed to split the $100,000 cost of the temporary repairs. The short, narrow span connects the two towns. Previous attempts to replace the span failed due to funding issues.
The Board of Finance transferred the money for the temporary repairs from Water Pollution Control Authority capital improvements.
The finance board’s decision came as an engineering firm hired by the town outlined its detailed assessment of the 17 bridges owned by the town and another five orphan bridges it is responsible for. The analysis will help guide town officials to prioritize repairs, replacement and maintenance and how to fund that work. The town has a similar plan for its roads.
Jay Costello, whose firm conducted the analysis, told the Board of Finance that the town’s bridges are “not in terrible shape.”
"In general, the condition of your bridges (is) not bad, they are fair,” he told finance board members. “But there are structures that definitely need work.”
According to the analysis, the Lantern Hill Road bridge is in the worst condition of the 22 bridges.
Greg Smith State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, has joined local legislators to present a bill to the state legislature seeking answers to lingering questions she says continue to swirl around the Connecticut Port Authority.
Should the city of New London continue to expect state funding through the Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, program now that State Pier is property of the Connecticut Port Authority? Is the port authority board addressing the concerns of small ports like Norwich? Has the port authority analyzed projected job losses versus gains as the result of the $157 million transformation of State Pier into an offshore wind hub?
“This is just the beginning of a process to get some answers,” Osten said. “What we’re trying to do is provide people with facts. We have a project that could be great or not so great ... but we need to answer these questions for our constituents."
Osten said she has worked with state Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, and state Reps. Anthony Nolan, D-New London; Christine Conley, D-Groton; and Joe De la Cruz, D-Groton, on legislation that she expects will head to the Transportation Committee for consideration in the coming weeks.
“The biggest thing is more transparency,” Nolan said.
The bill would seek:
- A review of PILOT funding in comparison to other quasi-public agencies.
- An explanation of Connecticut Port Authority board membership concerning small ports and host community representation.
- An update on small port projects and bond funding.
- An analysis of the net new jobs at State Pier compared to current job losses.
- Quarterly reporting by the port authority on things like reports on requests for proposals and contracts, status on port upgrades and status of negotiations with current tenants.
“Questions keep coming up over and over again,” Osten said. “What we’re trying to do is get to the bottom of what the problem is and resolve the issues ... answers for both the city of New London and the region.”
“It would make us a little more comfortable if we could come up with an analysis to get out to constituents and answer the questions and stop the concerns from the region that we’re being taken advantage (of) by larger corporations,” she said.
New London Mayor Michael Passero has continued to voice concerns about a major project commencing in the city on tax-exempt land without the city receiving fair compensation as the host community. The harbor redevelopment project is funded through an agreement with Eversource and Danish wind company Ørsted. Outside of the state agreement, Passero is involved in stalled talks with Ørsted/ Eversource over a host community agreement.
Passero additionally has sought representation on the port authority’s board of directors, something he said was promised two years ago. Nolan said past legislation to gain a seat for a representative from New London failed to gain traction but he is working with local legislators to present a proposal again during this legislative session.
Passero said Saturday that he welcomes any legislation regarding transparency of the port authority and said he is planning a series of meetings on his own with state legislators that include state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme.
“It’s great that the legislators share the frustration I have with this secret organization,” Passero said of the proposed bill. “They should be in our shoes. We’re being cut out of any of the tax revenues.”
Osten was among legislators calling for hearings in 2019 to explore the Connecticut Port Authority's questionable contracts, employments decisions and apparent lack of financial controls that led to an audit and state oversight.
David Kooris, chairman of the Connecticut Port Authority board of directors, said he couldn't comment on a bill he has not seen. "Regarding confidence in the CPA, the legislature should rest assured that we've been working closely with (the state Office of Policy and Management) since 2019 to address the limited substantive issues that emerged from audits conducted last year," he said in an email.
He said updates of the State Pier project, shared with OPM and state Department of Administrative Services, occur at the board's regular meetings.
Matt Pilon onnecticut’s solar energy sector is entering its next phase, marked by ever-larger projects and greater scrutiny by regulators and farming advocates on the long-term impact ground-mounted panel arrays have on the state’s limited stock of agricultural land.
One upstart solar developer working to become a player in that evolving landscape is Hartford-based Verogy, and the strategies it’s employing to ward off opposition are unique, to say the least.
Since last summer, the three-year-old company has helped convince regulators to approve several of its utility-scale projects on Connecticut farms by allowing sheep to live and graze under and around its solar panels.
Sheep grazing will occur at its recently approved East Windsor and Bristol solar farms, and potentially at a Southington project it has pending before the Connecticut Siting Council, which has purview over energy generation projects of 2 megawatts or greater. Verogy has also pledged to create native pollinator habitats at those three sites, as well as others, by planting specific seed mixes.
It will also store, for potential later use, 2 acres of prime soils that will be excavated during construction of its 3.3-megawatt Bristol project.
Those are several emerging strategies Verogy and other solar developers are using to satisfy state regulators, who are asking for greater farmland mitigation commitments following a 2017 state law that makes it tougher to win approval to build on certain agricultural and forest lands.
For projects on so-called “prime” farmland, the idea is to maintain some agricultural activity when renewable energy generation takes over.
“This has been a wild learning process for us, as solar developers,” said Verogy CEO William Herchel. “If you had told me 12 or 18 months ago that we were going to be contracting with sheep farmers and shepherds, I would have said you’re crazy, but that’s the way it’s going and it’s a really good thing.”
Herchel, a licensed attorney and UConn Law alum, co-founded Verogy with a team of fellow former Greenskies Renewable Energy executives who decided to strike out on their own when the Middletown-based solar firm was acquired in 2017.
Verogy, which today has 16 employees, launched with the help of a $5 million pre-seed equity round from Texas-based Stonehenge Growth Capital.
The company is pursuing developments in several states and has a Connecticut pipeline of six pending and approved projects totaling more than 20 megawatts. By 2024, Verogy is hoping to develop nearly triple that amount of capacity annually. The company anticipates reaching profitability this year.
Herchel said he has observed the frictions that have cropped up over the past decade between agricultural and preservation advocates worried about the shrinking supply of farmland in the state, and solar developers whose projects require large swaths of open, sun-soaked land that’s close to utility infrastructure.
Agricultural land often fits the bill, especially because many farmers are under financial pressure and could use the new revenue stream.
“It’s a tough one,” Herchel said. “I get it when people are concerned about areas near their homes or farmland they’ve seen their whole lives.”
But more clean energy is needed if the world is going to avert some of the potentially disastrous impacts of climate change for future generations, and Connecticut has committed to ambitious carbon dioxide reductions in the coming decades, meaning solar development will likely continue.
“[Solar] is going to overtake some areas,” Herchel said. “Is that acceptable for the greater good and can you get comfortable with that moving forward?”
Co-locating solar energy and agricultural activity is an emerging practice known as “agrivoltaics” and there are techniques beyond what’s been happening in Connecticut of late.
For example, solar developers in other states have accommodated the cultivation of vegetables, hay and other crops under and around their panel arrays. That, in some instances, requires taller solar panels, potentially increasing project costs.
Agrivoltaics has drawn federal research funding that aims to better understand implications for crop performance and yields, soil quality and stormwater management.
Roughly two dozen solar sites around the country — including some in New York and Massachusetts, but none in Connecticut — have received grants from the U.S. Department of Energy to collect and study such data.
“In fairness, it’s newish for everybody,” said Pullman & Comley attorney Lee Hoffman, who has represented numerous utility-scale solar developers, including Verogy, before the Siting Council. “We didn’t have commercial-scale solar [in the country] 20 years ago in any great numbers.”
Not everyone is convinced agrivoltaics solves the core problem.
Peter Hearn, executive director of the state Council on Environmental Quality, said the idea behind such measures is based on an assumption that a solar development could one day revert back to farming use 20 to 30 years down the road. In his view, those prospects are dim.
“There’s no reason to believe that a solar farm that’s viable in 2021 is going to be less viable in 2051,” Hearn said. “If anything, it’s expected that photovoltaics will become more efficient. Once the infrastructure is there and the transmission lines are there, by what rationale would it become obsolete?”
Coming to the table
Agrivoltaics can add complications and costs to solar projects, but Verogy and other developers must weigh the potential implications of refusing to try it.
One potential upside for developers willing to accommodate some agricultural activity is it could lead to a faster and less costly review process before the Siting Council.
That cost-benefit analysis is a newer wrinkle for Connecticut solar developers. It stems from the 2017 state law passed in response to rising concerns about solar projects growing ever larger and occupying more farmland.
The law does not block solar development on prime farmland, but makes the approval process more difficult by giving the Department of Agriculture power to effectively block a project from winning approval through the Siting Council’s simpler and much cheaper petition process.
Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt, who has the final say on whether or not a project will impact prime farmland, said he’s been meeting with new project applicants over the past year to discuss what sorts of measures they might be willing to take to reduce their projects’ farming impacts.
“I’m not setting hard and fast guidelines or rules,” Hurlburt said. “We get this is a whole new world for both parties.”
Hurlburt said developers who appear committed to sufficient mitigation measures could help sway his final decision on a project.
“I’m open to revising letters and comments with the certainty and guarantee that efforts to protect prime soils are true,” he said.
Hoffman, the lawyer, said solar developers are watching to determine which mitigation measures might be most convincing to the department.
“What we’re seeing now are really the first commercial-scale solar projects that have to go through the entire process,” he said. “I think everyone is still feeling their way through it.”
From the decisions Hurlburt has made about farmland impacts so far, it’s clear that measures he deems to be satisfactory for one project may not be for another.
For example, Verogy’s proposed 4.7-megawatt Southington project has drawn opposition from a farming business, Karabin Farms, which currently leases the land and would be displaced if the solar project is built.
It’s a relatively rare scenario, but it could change the project’s fate.
Hurlburt wrote to the Siting Council in September that Verogy’s grazing and pollinator proposals, which were key to his approval of several other projects, were insufficient to address the removal of an established farming operation.
If Verogy can’t convince Hurlburt to change his mind, it could make the project’s approval path longer and more expensive.
“We are still working with [the department] cooperatively to find the best solution for the Southington project,” Herchel said.
Lance Reynolds TORRINGTON – With seventh- and eighth-graders a part of the new Torrington Middle/High School, more traffic will be coming and going on Major Besse Drive once the $159.8 million building opens for the 2024-25 school year.
The project’s building committee is looking to eradicate that problem by opening Daley Drive as a permanent access road to the school’s campus on Major Besse Drive, the site of the current grade 9-12 school.
Mario Longobucco, who co-chairs the building committee with school district business director Ed Arum, said they’re talking with the project’s design team on widening Daley Drive and installing an automated gate on the road that would be controlled from the school’s main office.
“I’m just having a hard time visualizing everybody cramming up Major Besse Drive off of Prospect and Charles [streets],” Longobucco said. “It’s going to be too much. On top of that, in the short term we could use it for all the construction vehicles.”
Building committee members discussed opening Daley Drive, which is behind the current school near the baseball and softball fields, as a temporary access road during construction of the new school, which is slated to begin in April 2022.
Longobucco, though, said he would like to see Daley Drive be opened for the morning commute from 6:30 to 8 a.m. and after school gets out from 2 to 3 p.m. Tentative plans, he said, are to have about 25 buses that transport students from the city’s north end use the road instead of having to loop around to Major Besse Drive.
Board of Education Chairwoman Fiona Cappabianca said she agrees with Longobucco that it would be effective to use Daley Drive permanently. However, the school district would need approval from the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission for permanent use.
“I don’t think there are any streets in town where residents get to say whether or not traffic goes past,” building committee member John Kissko said.
Daley Drive had been fully opened to residents in the 1970s-80s until the creation of Doman Drive. However, the road suffered from vandalism and people accessing it who shouldn’t have been, Longobucco said. He noted the road will be well lit and will have cameras, making it more secure.
“We are going to have to get creative with the team and make something that (the public) can’t destroy. Once you educate the public that they know it’s not open on the weekends, it’s not open during the (school) day, they just won’t go there.”
Cappabianca said she has heard city residents question whether a pool will be part of the new school, which will cost the city $74.8 million after an $85-million state reimbursement
“They won’t stop about the pool,” she said. “It’s constant. People can’t even believe we’d consider doing this without the pool.”
Longobucco said residents need to understand a pool would cost about $7.5 million without a state reimbursement. There would also be increases in insurance, liability and maintenance for custodians. The district spends about $50,000 for use of pools at the city’s YMCA, he noted.
“I would really love to see it, myself, because I think it would be great for the community,” Longobucco said. “But financially, it just doesn’t make sense.”
- President-elect Joe Biden has selected Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former construction union leader, to serve as his labor secretary.
- The announcement yesterday noted that if confirmed, Walsh — former head of both Laborers’ Union Local 223 and the Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades Council — would be the first union member to serve in the role in nearly half a century.
- The mayor pledged his support to the working class after his nomination was announced. "Working people, labor unions, and those fighting every day for their shot at the middle class are the backbone of our economy and of this country," he said in a tweet. "As Secretary of Labor, I'll work just as hard for you as you do for your families and livelihoods. You have my word."
The news brought cheers from unions like the AFL-CIO and building trades groups, who lauded Walsh’s decades of experience in the construction industry.
“There is no better decision for U.S. Labor Secretary that President-elect Biden could have made than somebody who has been there, done it, with unquestioned leadership, accessibility, and vast executive experience,” said North America’s Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey in a statement emailed to Construction Dive.
The release from Biden’s transition team noted Walsh’s accomplishments in helping workers in Boston, including a fight for a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave, and his commitment to creating “good-paying union jobs” by investing in clean energy. Walsh serves as the chair of Climate Mayors, a coalition of nearly 500 U.S. mayors committed to climate mitigation. In Boston, he has targeted emissions, prepared the city's coastline for sea level rise, prepared vulnerable populations for climate impact and invested in green jobs, he recently told sister publication Smart Cities Dive.
If confirmed, Walsh would take over the department at a critical time for the U.S. workforce, with millions of people out of work and facing the loss of jobless benefits.
"We look forward to working with the new labor secretary as we address significant issues like protecting the safety of the workforce, ensuring the long-term viability of multi-employer retirement plans and making sure construction workers in all parts of the country, including those who choose to work union or open shop, have access to high-quality training opportunities," said Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives for the Associated General Contractors of America, said in a statement.
The Biden administration may revise a number of regulations put into effect by the Trump administration labor department. Such regulations include Fair Labor Standards Act requirements relating to the minimum salary threshold for white-collar overtime exemption, joint employer status and independent contractor qualifications.
Biden's platform called for DOL's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to double the number of investigators and enact emergency temporary standards for workplace safety amid the pandemic, a measure that the AFL-CIO requested in 2020 but a court declined to enforce.
Associated Builders and Contractors CEO Michael Bellaman said his association looks forward to working with Walsh, calling him "a leader who has an extensive career in construction and experience in local government."
"The Department of Labor’s mission is critical in ensuring the safety, equitable treatment and advancement of all American workers without needlessly hindering economic growth," Bellaman said. "Over the coming months, it will be critical to help companies recover from the COVID-19 epidemic, expand job training and careers in construction for displaced workers, and create safe and healthy jobsites benefitting America’s workforce, infrastructure and economy.”
Walsh said recently that other U.S. businesses could learn a lot from watching how construction operated during the pandemic.
“They put incredible safety protocols in place on these jobsites,” he said. “This is really an industry that we can learn from how to reopen — and reopen safely.”
McGarvey noted that as a former construction laborer, Walsh is keenly aware of the health and safety issues facing U.S. workers.
“He will make sure that America’s workers get the proper training and that America’s employers, in partnership, follow the rules so that workers arrive home after work in the same condition as they headed off to work in the morning,” he said.
Pat Tomlinson NORWALK — Three major development projects that have been stalled for the greater part of the decade — and longer in some cases — received Zoning Commission approval Thursday night.
The commission unanimously approved applications for the Pinnacle at Waypointe development, which is the final phase of a larger project that began nearly a decade ago; and two apartment complexes part of the Wall Street Place project, which began about 15 years ago.
Mayor Harry Rilling said he was “happy” to see the projects moving along after so many years of inactivity. The Wall Street Project is “critically important” to the revitalization of the Wall Street area, he said, while The Pinnacle would be the piece to tie that area and the rest of Norwalk center together with SoNo.
“We’ve already noticed with Waypointe that there are more people walking the streets of an area that had been challenged in that regard, so we’re excited to see how this helps to tie that area and Wall Street to the South Norwalk corridor,” Rilling said.
The Wall Street Place project and The Pinnacle have undergone major facelifts since they were originally proposed years ago, and both have changed ownership in that time.
The latest plans for The Pinnacle at Waypointe — the fourth such proposal for the project since 2014 — include a six-story building outfitted with 393 apartments, 576 parking spaces and 25,495 square feet of commercial space at the former Loehmann’s Plaza site on the corner of West Avenue and Orchard Street.
Originally, the development, also referred to as the “South Block” of Waypointe, planned for a two- to three-story 130,280 square foot mixed-use development with 54,250 square feet of retail space, eight theaters with 620 seats, a fitness center and a 3,229-square-foot restaurant.
Early concepts for the development included three anchor tenants — a Container Store, a Nordstrom Rack and a King’s Bowl — and far less apartments.
But in 2017 all three tenants walked away. Then-owner Belpointe Capital and new owner Toll Brothers have since looked to add apartments to compensate for the loss.
The reduction in commercial space planned for the development had long been a sticking point for Zoning Commission Chairman Louis Schulman.
But after months of discussions with Toll Brothers, Schulman said on Thursday while he would have “preferred” more retail space, he’s come around to the developer’s point of view.
“At some point we hear that often enough, and see the vacancies at Waypointe, and you come to agree with their position,” he said.
In addition to the Pinnacle project, Schulman commended JHM Financial Group, the developer behind the Wall Street Place project, on working with the city’s consultant Bob Grzywacz to find a path forward on the long-stalled project.
“They worked hard to be responsive to Mr. Grzywacz, to staff and to our comments, as well as with the concerns of one of their immediate neighbors,” he said.
The Wall Street Place project seeks to build more than 178,000 square feet of residential space in two adjacent buildings — 61 Wall St. and 17 Isaacs St. — and nearly 12,500 square feet of retail space. The development would include a six-story building with 101 dwelling units at 61 Wall St., and four-story building with 50 units at 17 Isaacs St.
“I think we need both projects, and their both projects of good quality,” Schulman said.
In the original plan, approved in August 2008, then-developer POKO Partners, LLC proposed building 182,112 square feet of development, which included 101 housing units, 14,759 square feet of retail and 2,424 square feet of restaurant space on the 2.9-acre site, on and surrounding the Isaacs Street parking lot.
However, financial troubles, issues over parking and numerous lawsuits have stymied the project for years.
Despite Thursday’s approval, the Wall Street Place project still has other hurdles to clear.
Developer Jason Milligan, who owns a number of other properties in the area, has five pending lawsuits against the city and the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency in connection to the two properties. Last month, Milligan also told commissioners he planned to open a sixth lawsuit if they decided to approve the application.