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CT Construction Digest Thursday January 5, 2023

CT's largest bridge is set for a $158 million facelift over next six years

Vincent Gabrielle

While nobody is likely to confuse the Golden Gate Bridge for the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in southeastern Connecticut. But the two bridges are in the same category of bridges set to get a facelift thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in recently announced federal funds.

The bridges are two of four projects nationwide boosted by the federal infrastructure law passed last year, along with the Brent Spence Bridge in Kentucky and a series of four bridges in Chicago. The Connecticut bridge is now set for a $158 million project that will extend until 2029.

To celebrate the funding, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg visited New London on Wednesday to get an up close look at the bridge that spans the Thames River.

Joined by newly-reinaugurated Governor Ned Lamont and Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, local representatives and members of industry, the secretary touted the Biden administration’s infrastructure spending.

“These four bridges were chosen partially because they were not just iconic pieces of infrastructure but because they are essential to America’s economic strength,” said Buttigieg. “We cannot have the kind of economy we need without them.”

Gold Star Memorial Bridge is the largest bridge in the state of Connecticut at 6,000 feet in length and 150 feet in height at the center span. The bridge is actually a twin pair, one for northbound traffic and the other for southbound traffic on I-95. 

Collectively the bridges serve roughly 120,000 vehicle trips a day and are a vital part of the transit infrastructure for the state and region.

“These kinds of facilities are the cathedrals of our infrastructure,” said Buttigieg. “Right here tens of thousands of people are driving across the Gold Star Bridge every day to get to their jobs, to school, to everything that matters in their lives.”

The northbound bridge’s construction started in 1941 as a project to reroute car and truck traffic off of an old bridge that carried US Route 1 over the river but was put on pause as the United States entered World War II.

The thousands of tons of steel necessary to complete the bridge were dear to the war effort. The northbound span was only completed during the war because of its strategic importance to shipping and naval industries.

“The men and women who use this bridge to go to work build submarines,” said Blumenthal at the press conference. “That is what is at stake with this bridge.”

In the nearly 80 years since its construction, the bridge has been battered by storms, salty air and normal wear and tear. Inspectors hired by the state of Connecticut have found numerous instances of corrosion, cracks and fatigue in the steel truss structure. The structure and deck are rated poor. The southbound bridge, built in the early 1970s, underwent repairs that were completed in 2019. 

It’s bad enough that there is a 40-ton weight restriction on the bridge, forcing trucks to take a nearly 20-mile detour to cross the Thames River.

“Some of our trucks travel that specialize in New York and New Jersey travel this bridge twice a day,” said Melanie Makjut, owner of M&G Trucking and Transportation based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island who spoke at the press conference. “My company needs this bridge to get all of the products to our customers.”

Fixing the steel trusses is the first step in the project and was already underway during Buttigieg’s visit. Local 15 Ironworker’s Union workers from Hartford took a short break from their work to watch Secretary Buttigieg speak.

“My union brothers and sisters are working on this bridge pretty much as we speak,” said Ruby Acosta, a 3rd year apprentice ironworker. “It’s awesome. We build America. We the ironworkers and the other Connecticut building trades.”

Once the structural elements of the bridge are repaired, the deck is slated for repairs and improvements to lighting, sign supports and storm drainage. A multi-modal path is planned for the bridge as well. Outgoing state Transportation Commissioner Joe Giulietti said that including the path was key to obtaining the funding.

“You’re going to see it on all our future bridges as well,” said Giulietti. “We realized the way of the future is going to involve those bike and pedestrian lanes going across.”

Work is expected to finish on the bridge in 2029. Commissioner Giulietti said that the federal funding shaved at minimum one year of work off the project. 

Buttigieg visits Gold Star Memorial Bridge

Erica Moser

New London ― U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 candidate for president and former mayor of South Bend, Ind., visited the city Wednesday to highlight a recently announced $158 million federal grant for repairs to the northbound span of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge.

The work will involve structural repairs that increase how much weight the bridge can bear as well as a new multi-use path for people to bike or walk safely, Buttigieg said. The Connecticut Department of Transportation is proposing either a new path on the northbound span or a separate sidewalk widening project on the southbound bridge, according to a fact sheet from the department.

The $158 million award is part of the Large Bridge Grants program of the Federal Highway Administration’s Bridge Investment Program. The BIP was established in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which President Joe Biden signed in November 2021.

“There’s nothing political, there’s nothing partisan, about making life easier for the companies and the workers and the commuters,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Wednesday during a press conference under the bridge.

Buttigieg noted the competitiveness of the Large Bridge Grants program as 48 applicants requested a total of $11 billion in funding, and the Gold Star Memorial Bridge was one of only four projects that were successful.

Asked about funding accountability in a one-on-one interview after the press conference, Buttigieg told The Day there are a lot of standards and requirements with federal dollars. But he also said the fact the bridge won an award of this scope “reflects a high level of confidence that the project sponsors will be able to meet the requirements of the program.”

At the press conference held at Thames River Boat Launch on State Pier Road, several people talked about the significance of the funding.

“My company needs this bridge to get all the products to our customers so they can keep the economy moving forward,” said Melody Majkut of Pawtucket, R.I.-based M&G Trucking. She added “investments like this in infrastructure help to avoid interruptions in that valuable supply chain.”

Connecticut State Building and Construction Trades Council President Keith Brothers said in addition to investing in infrastructure and people like Majkut, the federal funding means investing in workers. He noted that the bridge work is being done under a project labor agreement, with set working conditions, safety standards and holidays.

“This is not a bridge to nowhere. Remember that phrase?” said Gov. Ned Lamont, who came to New London from his inauguration and State of the State address in Hartford. “This is a bridge to opportunity, as Keith Brothers said.”

Also attending were representatives from Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), Teamsters, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 478, and Ironworkers Local 15.

Project timeline, details and funding

The nearly 6,000-foot-long Gold Star Memorial Bridge, the longest in the state, began construction in 2022 for the first phase of a $407.7 million rehabilitation project. The anticipated project competition date is November 2029, according to CTDOT.

Outgoing CTDOT Commissioner Joseph Giulietti noted there is now a 17-mile detour for heavy trucks and vehicles, sending them through more than 20 traffic lights, but the completion of this project will allow the bridge to accommodate all legal and permit vehicles.

New London Mayor Michael Passero said Buttigieg’s “advocacy for this bridge recognizes its strategic, economic importance, not just for this region but for the Northeast, as it sits midway between New York and Boston.”

Giulietti said this federal funding eliminates at least one year of construction, and Buttigieg said without the work funded by the $158 million, projections show that down the road, there would be more load restrictions impacting more vehicles.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Murphy credited Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, for his work getting the grant, but Courtney was in Washington, D.C. for the House session in which a new speaker was being chosen.

Buttigieg and airlines

On another topic, Blumenthal thanked Buttigieg for providing “the kind of strength and dedicated leadership that is necessary to hold the airlines accountable.” But others have criticized Buttigieg’s handling of airline complaints ahead of Southwest Airlines’ flight cancellation crisis at the end of December.

A bipartisan group of 38 attorneys general wrote in an August letter to House and Senate leaders that US DOT has “failed to respond and to provide appropriate recourse” in airline consumer complaints, and that “both Republican and Democratic Presidents have failed to spur the US DOT to act in a manner that responds effectively to consumer complaints.”

They asked Congress to pass a law authorizing state attorneys general to enforce consumer protection laws around the airline industry.

Buttigieg told The Day, “I don’t think having 50 different systems for regulating something national like aviation makes a lot of sense, but I do actually think the attorneys general can play an important role.”

He said US DOT has done work over the summer on airline accountability and got the top 10 airlines “to file a stepped-up consumer plan with us.” He said the department will be “putting Southwest under a microscope to make sure they’re following through on that” and will be following up on thousands of complaints.

“I stand by our work as the strongest work that’s been done,” Buttigieg said, adding that since the summer, US DOT initiated enforcement actions against airlines that led to more than $60 million in refunds to passengers.

The other three bridges

Biden administration officials this week are visiting the other three bridges getting Large Bridge Grants. Biden on Wednesday went to the Brent Spence Bridge, spanning the Ohio River between Ohio and Kentucky, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine; and Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear.

Vice President Kamala Harris went to Chicago Wednesday to highlight $144 million to rehabilitate four bridges over the Calumet River. On Thursday, White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are celebrating a grant for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Buttigieg said in the press conference Wednesday, “These four bridges were chosen not just because they’re iconic pieces of infrastructure but because they’re essential to America’s strength.” He told The Day that US DOT will announce funding for medium-sized bridges later this winter.

Winsted referendum Saturday on $2.3 million more for water projects

Emily M. Olson

WINSTED  — Voters on Saturday will be asked to approve borrowing $2.3 million to supplement a $6.2 million project that includes new water mains and improved water storage tanks in town. 

The projects were first proposed in 2021 by the Water and Sewer Commission. Costs to replace a water storage tank on Wallens Hill Road, and build a second tank at Crystal Lake, have increased since the projects first were presented three years ago.

The commission in March received approval from the Board of Selectmen to borrow $6.2 million for the project, which includes replacement of an aging water storage tank on Wallens Hill, construction of a second, smaller storage tank at Crystal Lake and replacing 4,000 feet of water mains on streets served by the water and sewer plant. 

In November, Director of Public Works Jim Rollins presented selectmen with an explanation of the cost increases and the need to borrow more funds.

The $6.2 million, he said, was based on estimates the commission developed more than three years ago. Since then, the cost for materials has gone up, and the project costs have increased by more than 35 percent, for a total of $8.5 million.  

"The first amount for the Wallens Hill tank was $2.2 million, but our most recent bids show it will cost $3.2 million," Rollins said. "For the tank at Crystal Lake, the first amount was $2.5 million; the most recent bids show $3.1 million. Those are based on increased costs since the project was first developed (in 2018)."

The commission is borrowing the money from the state Department of Public Health’s Drinking Water Revolving Fund to pay for the project, which will be paid back over a 20-year schedule. To pay for the improvements, customer rate increases will be phased in over the next five years and will apply to a customer’s quarterly base rate, fixtures and a grinder pump maintenance fee. The loans will be paid back using those fees. 

Mayor Todd Arcelaschi, during a Board of Selectmen meeting this week, encouraged residents to vote on the project. Saturday's referendum will be held from 8 a.m.to 8 p.m.  at the Pearson School. All registered voters are eligible to participate. 

Waterbury seeking OK from aldermen for $30M bond to rehab Chase Building


WATERBURY – City administration is requesting approval from the Board of Aldermen for a $30 million bond authorization to rehabilitate the Chase Municipal Building, the former corporate headquarters of Chase Brass & Copper Co.

Mayor Neil M. O’Leary said significant upgrades to the building are sorely needed.

“It is old and falling apart,” he said, noting the city is in a good position to borrow money because it has an AA bond rating and can get a competitive interest rate.

O’Leary cited an antiquated boiler system, an obsolete HVAC and electrical system, and rotting windows. He said there have been several incidents over the years in which rotten windows have fallen onto parked cars, damaging them.

“The conditions are that bad,” O’Leary said. “Obviously we have taken steps for precautionary and safety reasons, but the conditions are worsening over time.”

Cass Gilbert designed the Chase Building in 1919, according to the Cass Gilbert Society. The design encompassed a three-story “symmetrical structure faced in white stone,” the society stated. The building was the home of Chase Brass & Copper until the 1960s. The building was then sold to the city in 1966.

The Chase building now houses several city and education offices, including the Board of Education, human resources, registrars of voters and the fire department’s administrative offices.

Michael LeBlanc, the city’s director of finance, said there has not been any major investment into the building since 1966.

Over the past year, city officials hired an outside consultant to conduct both building and window condition assessments.

The project would include a comprehensive rehabilitation of the building, including exterior window restoration and replacements; electrical, plumbing and mechanical upgrades; handicapped accessibility improvements, and code upgrades, city documents state.

The administration’s request includes a bond authorization for the project, but LeBlanc said the actual bond to be issued would be determined later. City officials hope to secure as much as they can from grants, energy incentives and programs, including potentially historic tax credits, to reduce the overall amount they will have to bond for the project, he added.

Board of Aldermen President Paul K. Pernerewski Jr. agreed the building needs to be brought up to modern standards.

On Monday, the board will vote on whether to approve scheduling a Jan. 23 hearing for the project.

Inflation could sap infrastructure act’s buying power this year

Julie Strupp

Inflation could severely weaken the impact of funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, experts say. 

High prices for construction materials and other project inputs are already sapping jurisdictions’ additional buying power from the federal legislation, according to analysis from the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

In the past year, states have been seeing 20% to 40% hikes in project costs, depending on the region and materials, Susan Howard, director of policy and government relations at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, told Pew. That’s leading transportation agencies to scale back on the scope of projects or use it for work that was already planned.

This environment is also challenging for contractors that want to bid on infrastructure projects, according to American Society of Civil Engineers Senior Vice President K.N. “Guna” Gunalan. In addition to higher materials prices, builders are having trouble getting commitment from suppliers for when equipment will be delivered, and shipping was logistically difficult and also more expensive in the past year due to backlogs in the ports.

“It’s a question of how far can you stretch a dollar. Everyone is trying to stretch it as far as they can,” said Gunalan. Staying nimble and adopting a phased approach for projects can help, but it’s still difficult to nail down costs for a project and “there are only so many contingencies you can build into a budget.”

Dramatic escalations

These challenges to executing infrastructure projects look set to continue this year. 

Inflation will likely persist for a while since supply chains have still not fully recovered from COVID-19, Michael Hardman, vice president of Turner & Townsend, a U.K.-based global real estate and infrastructure consultancy, told Construction Dive.

“When looking ahead into 2023, we are forecasting escalation year-on-year of 7%, with a return to the long-term average of 2.7% in 2024,” said Hardman. “However, by 2024 we will have seen three years of dramatic price escalation and if projects — and compounding effect — are true, we will see material prices approximately 25% to 28% higher than they would have been by equivalence in 2020.”

There are some positive signs: Prices for many construction materials are starting to even off as supply chains improve, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report. So far, inflation is not high enough to completely consume all of the IIJA money, and there may be further easing on the horizon. 

Some damage has already been done in 2022, and experts interviewed by Pew worry that continued inflation could eat away most of the benefit from the funding in the coming years. Still, the extra federal money is a help to jurisdictions.

“If we didn’t have these additional resources, states would be in a much bigger world of hurt,” Howard told Pew.