CT Construction Digest Thursday February 20, 2020
Mark Pazniokas and Keith M. Phaneuf
Gov. Ned Lamont effectively gave up Wednesday on Senate Democrats ever calling a promised vote on truck tolls, scolding fellow Democrats and telling reporters his administration was ready to explore alternative funding sources for transportation. But Senate Democratic leaders protested they would have been ready to vote next week, a claim Lamont did not find credible.
“Don’t say, ‘I can’t make up my mind, I need another week, I need another week, I need another week,’ ” Lamont told reporters in a hastily called press conference after legislative leaders left his office, refusing to comment. “I’ve heard that for a year, and I’ve lost patience.”
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, cancelled a vote that had been tentatively planned for Thursday, blaming a 30-hour filibuster threatened by Republicans as reason to once again pause and regroup. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, distanced himself from the Senate Democrats.
“I have always believed a tolling plan that captures out-of-state vehicles was the right thing to do to help move our state forward and protect Connecticut taxpayers from paying the whole tab for our infrastructure needs,” Aresimowicz said. “We were poised to act in the House tomorrow, but we need our colleagues in the Senate as well and apparently their ability to also act was tenuous.”
Republicans said the the Senate Democrat’s blaming a potential GOP filibuster for the cancellation was pretext; Democrats didn’t have the necessary votes for passage.
Lamont, a Democrat who took office a year ago, said it was hard to believe the Democratic majority ever would be ready to vote, despite claims by Looney and Aresimowicz that each could deliver a victory — if only the other chamber went first, or somehow could simultaneously take up sections of a plan to charge tractor trailers tolls on a dozen highway bridges.
” ‘We’re going to vote on Thursday.’ Everybody said that to me not less than five days ago,” Lamont said. “Here it is, Thursday is tomorrow, and they said, ‘Not yet, maybe next week.’ I’ve heard that in this building for the last year, and I think you’ve all heard it for 30 years. This is a place that specializes in kicking the can down the road, and I don’t accept it.”
Fasano said legislators were ready to tackle other issues and set aside a fight that had “sucked the oxygen” out of the Capitol. Klarides said she hoped the governor learned a lesson about trying to keep pushing an issue that clearly had run aground.
Neither Republican was willing to say the governor had suffered a fatal blow, undermining his ability to govern.
“We all know that your enemy today is your friend tomorrow in this building, so I wouldn’t read too much into this,” Fasano said.
Legislative Democrats, however, can expect blowback from their allies in organized labor.
Dave Roche, the president of the Connecticut Building Trades, said the Democratic majority was outmaneuvered by Republicans and had failed construction workers. He said Fasano was correct when he repeatedly said that Senate Democrats did not have the votes for passage.
“It’s disappointing that the legislature will not take a vote on the governor’s transportation plan — the only plan that responsibly takes advantage of federal loans, toll revenue from heavy out-of-state trucks and results in 23,000 jobs over the next decade,” Brown said. “The governor said it best: This proposal would create a recession-proof jobs program for thousands of workers in our state, allowing middle class families to flourish during a possible economic slowdown.”
Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association and an advocate for tolls, said he could appreciate the governor’s frustration with legislators.
“At this point it’s difficult to tell if Connecticut has a long-range plan to start addressing its transportation problems,” Shubert said. “I think everyone agrees that Connecticut has a shortfall in transportation funding.”
Lamont said his administration would now turn to other funding sources to address a backlog of transportation maintenance and improvements, including leaning more heavily on general obligation bonding, a step that could deprive funding for other capital projects. Whatever the administration pursues, the governor will need the Democratic majority.
House Democratic leaders deferred to the governor Wednesday, withholding comment until after he addressed reporters.
But Senate Democratic leaders rushed to release a statement before Lamont spoke, insisting they still could deliver on a transportation financing plan relying on truck tolls — if only Lamont and the House Democratic majority could give them another five days. The statement seemed intended to avoid blame for a major policy and political setback for a Democratic governor.
Kevin Coughlin, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic leaders, later clarified that the Senate had no plans for a vote next week.
“The governor put a pause on it, so there is no vote,” Coughlin said.
Aresimowicz, the House speaker, said the Senate had struggled to find the votes, noting Looney’s awkward statement after a Democratic caucus a month ago about a “contingent consensus” for truck tolls. Aresimowicz acknowledged he never was confident in the Senate leaders’ assurances that they could win final passage if the House took up the bill first.
“It would be irresponsible for me, given everything that’s happened in the last month, to vote for a bill and put it on the Senate floor, to have no guarantee it would pass if we sent it to them,” Aresimowicz said.
Looney could not be reached for comment.Insolvency ahead
Connecticut currently directs fuel taxes and various other revenues into a Special Transportation Fund to pay debt service on transportation projects, as well as the operating expenses of the Department of Transportation and Department of Motor Vehicles. But the fund is projected to become insolvent in the next five years, and the state has a significant backlog of infrastructure maintenance.
Connecticut borrowed nearly $800 million last fiscal year for highway, bridge and rail upgrades by issuing special tax obligation bonds, notes to be repaid from the Special Transportation Fund. That $800 million was complemented by approximately $750 million in matching federal grants.
Lamont pledges to release stalled town aid, regardless of whether tolls are approved
Keith M. Phaneuf
Gov. Ned Lamont pledged Wednesday to support borrowing for overdue municipal aid — even if legislators reject his transportation initiative and the truck tolls that would come with it.
Lamont made his pledge following a mid-day appearance before the Connecticut Council of Small Towns. The coalition, which represents 115 municipalities with populations less than 35,000, featured Lamont as keynote speaker at its annual town meeting.
“I’m trying to honor the commitment that previous governors have made,” Lamont said, referring to bonding for three municipal grant programs that collectively sent $150 million to cities and towns last fiscal year.
The governor’s pledge comes one day after leaders of the legislature’s Democratic majority announced the latest delay in voting on the transportation plan. A vote tentatively scheduled for Thursday was canceled, and a vote is not expected before next week at the earliest.
“This is great news,” Elizabeth Gara, executive director of COST, said of the governor’s pledge. “We’ve been waiting for that Town Aid Road funding for several months now.”
Gara noted that the Local Capital Improvement Program grant, which supports many municipal sidewalk, parking area and downtown development initiatives, usually is released in March. “Towns need to know that money is in place soon,” she said, adding that planning already is underway for projects set to start this spring.
“I’m glad that he realizes the importance of getting these funds released as quickly as possible,” Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Executive Director Joe DeLong said, adding that delayed routine road maintenance quickly becomes a more expensive fix.
While the governor and legislature approved a new two-year state budget last June, they did not settle on a complementary two-year bond package — a schedule of projects and programs to be supported with long-term financing.
Lamont, who is asking legislators to finance an 11-year rebuild of Connecticut’s aging, overcrowded transportation infrastructure partly with tolls on large commercial trucks, has said he can’t sign off on a bonding package until transportation’s future is unclear.
Why not? Because absent toll receipts, low-interest federal loans and other revenue sources in the latest transportation proposal, Connecticut may have to shift bonding away from many non-transportation programs to upgrade its highways, bridges and rail lines, Lamont said.
“We really do need to get our hands on” those grants, Roxbury First Selectwoman Barbara Henry told Lamont during a question-and-answer period. She asked why local aid was being held hostage by the transportation debate.
“I think that is a cheap shot,” said Lamont, who addressed about 250 municipal leaders gathered at the Aqua Turf in Southington. “I’m not holding anything hostage. I’ve just got to figure out how we’re going to pay for transportation.”
But the governor, who is a former member of Greenwich’s Board of Finance, said he understands the challenges of balancing a municipal budget.
“I told these people, even if we can’t” get this transportation initiative passed, “I’ll make sure we get their municipal aid going, because that’s a deal we made with them.”
Last fiscal year communities received $60 million in bonded aid for the Town Aid Road program, another $60 million for an omnibus grant for municipal projects, and $30 million for the Local Capital Improvement Program.
The stalled Town Aid Road funding has been particularly contentious given the timing.
Communities normally receive half of the $60 million in July, so it can be used for summer road repaving and fall tree clearing, and another $30 million in January, which helps pay for winter snow removal.
Lamont showed similar flexibility to assist municipalities last July when he agreed to move forward with another portion of the bond package. At that time he signed a bill authorizing $160.5 million in bonding to assist various municipal school construction projects.
But the governor also made clear Wednesday that the rest of the bond package still cannot be settled until Connecticut has a clear plan on how to rebuild its aging transportation network.
With the full Board of Education voting to advance the plan at their recent meeting, we are one step closer to final approval of this project. The positive feedback we’ve received on the plan has been tremendous. I am eager to continue working alongside the Norwalk state delegation, the Mayor’s office, the Board of Education, and the Common Council to advance this project and see it through to completion. The new school will not only foster the education, growth, and advancement of students, but also will be a place of pride for the City of Norwalk for years to come.
Former Groton school site envisioned as 280-unit housing development
Groton — Developers are envisioning the former William Seely School property as an approximately 280-apartment development designed with "a community feel" and amenities including a clubhouse, pool, movie viewing areas, walking trail and dog park.
DonMar Development Corp., a North Haven-based, family-owned business, unveiled conceptual plans for the redevelopment of the site during an informational meeting attended by about 70 people Wednesday evening at the Town Hall Annex. The plans also were outlined to The Day.
Mario Di Gioia, DonMar's CEO and president, called Wednesday's meeting the "first step" in public outreach, and said the plans are still in the early stages and represent the starting point for what the company wishes to develop.
The proposed development is designed to appeal to millennials, as well as empty nesters, DonMar Project Executive Anthony Di Gioia said in a phone interview.
The conceptual plans for "Triton Square" show three four-story buildings connected through sky bridges. The complex is named in honor of the submarine USS Triton, the first vessel to travel around the world submerged, to pay tribute to the fact that Groton is "the submarine capital of the world," DonMar Vice President Michael Di Gioia said.
The main entrance would be through the clubhouse — a space, located on the first floor of one of the buildings, that includes mailrooms, a lounge area, media/music room, common work area, multipurpose room, fitness center and dog spa — to create a sense of community, Anthony Di Gioia said.
In addition to the clubhouse, other proposed amenities include a movie wall, grilling stations, a pool, a walking trail around the site and a dog park, as well as a rooftop lounge area in a central location, he said.
"It’s a state-of-the-art project, and we’re so excited to be moving forward and working with the town of Groton," said Michael Di Gioia. He added that Triton Square will be "a landmark in Groton and ultimately the gold standard for campus-style living."
The market-price apartments will be a mixture of studios, one bedrooms and two bedrooms, the developers said.
Anthony Di Gioia said that once DonMar started doing market research on Groton and its demographics, the company knew that it was the place it wanted to be. He said the town has been "excellent to work with" and very knowledgeable about the need for new housing to meet the shifting population that's coming to work in Groton, particularly as Electric Boat is poised to ramp up hiring over the next decade.
He said the DonMar's goal is in line with the town's in helping to retain some of its commuting workforce.
A recently announced redevelopment of another property, the Mystic Education Center, which is proposed as a mixed-use village, also is intended to help provide housing for Groton's workforce. Commuters hold 80 percent of the jobs in Groton, and a goal is to provide housing that will keep workers in the community, Groton Economic and Community Development Manager Paige Bronk has said.
Mario Di Gioia said at the meeting that the company wants to meet the needs of the workforce by providing "quality, amenity-rich housing" that also will attract older professionals who do not want to maintain a house and are looking for a sense of community. He said the majority of Groton's housing stock was built before 1939 and from 1970 to 1979.
The company also wants to keep young workers here. "... We want them to spend their disposable income at local businesses. We want them to pay property taxes to the Town of Groton, and when they are ready to buy a house to start a family, we want them to purchase your homes," he told the audience.
Anthony Di Gioia said initial environmental studies on the former school building at 55 Seely School Drive show that while the soils don't have contamination, the former school, an older building, has asbestos and PCBs. DonMar will be cleaning it up before demolishing it, so the company will be remedying an environmental issue for the town, as well as putting the property back on the tax rolls.
Mario Di Gioia said the millennial generation is not having children at the same rate as previous generations, so the multifamily housing development would have a "negligible" impact on school population.
The main entrance to the site presently is on Seely School Drive. The conceptual plans, as they currently stand, call for a potential main access out onto Walker Hill Road through the use of an easement adjacent to the water tower, which Groton Utilities has agreed to provide, according to Anthony Di Gioia and local officials.
DonMar plans to have a monument built in honor of William Seely, a Groton sailor who was among the 1,177 men killed on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and preserve plaques from inside the current building, Michael Di Gioia said.
Anthony Di Gioia said the development will be environmentally friendly, with buildings prepared to accommodate solar panels, electric charging stations and the use of recycled carpeting material and lumber from environmentally responsible sources. The buildings also would be oriented on the site to minimize the number of trees that will be cut down.
As it designs a stormwater management system for the site, the company is looking into a type of recycling system that will collect and store water coming off the roof and parking lot to irrigate the lawns, so as to avoid wasting water, he added.
Town Planning and Development Director Jon Reiner said Wednesday's meeting was to introduce the redevelopment concept and the "preferred developer" for the site and serves as the "first step in the process," which is expected to lead into further discussions. The Town Council has not signed any agreements with the developer.
The developer has not yet submitted an application to the Planning and Zoning Commission and has a fair amount of work to do before getting to that point, Reiner added. The development also will require approval from the Inland Wetlands Agency.
The project's architectural firm is The Sullivan Architectural Group, with Ray Sullivan serving as the lead architect, and the engineering firm is Milone & MacBroom, with Tom Daly serving as head engineer.
Daly said that there are plans for studies, including of topography, drainage and traffic. He said if the traffic study shows there is a need for roadway improvements in the surrounding area, those will be part of the future application.
After the presentation, residents spoke to town staff and the developers individually to ask questions or raise their concerns.