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CT Construction Digest Tuesday April 6, 2021

Biden team seeks public's help to outrun GOP on infrastructure

Nancy Cook Bloomberg

The Biden administration is aiming to corral overwhelming public support for its $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan, targeting Republican voters, independents, mayors, governors and local politicians to counter opposition from GOP lawmakers, according to White House officials and Biden allies.

It's the same outside-of-Washington playbook President Joe Biden's team used to successfully pass his stimulus $1.9 trillion bill last month -- applied to an even larger spending proposal that already enjoys a head start in public support, polls suggest.

Biden's aides and allies believe that just trying to persuade congressional Republicans to support what he calls a jobs plan is the strategy of a bygone era. Barack Obama's presidency took that tack, when bipartisan negotiations over the Affordable Care Act with GOP lawmakers proved fruitless.

While Biden says he's happy to work with Republicans, listen to their ideas and make adjustments, the White House doesn't want to let the GOP slow or water down Democrats' sweeping policy agenda. One White House official said the president is a realist about what happened during the Obama years as well as about the internal dynamics of the GOP in Washington and the pressures its individual members face.

Congressional Republican leaders quickly stated their opposition to Biden's $2.25 trillion plan last week, calling it a hodge-podge of liberal aspirations and arguing that its corporate-tax increases would hurt U.S. competitiveness.

But Biden aides and allies argue proposals like fixing roads and bridges, expanding broadband, boosting taxes on the wealthy and corporations and expanding affordable child care options are overwhelming popular with both Democratic and Republican voters.

In a White House memo sent on March 31 obtained by Bloomberg, senior adviser Anita Dunn wrote that the support for the Covid-19 relief bill remained "steady and popular" from its introduction to its passage. Her memo signaled the White House hopes for the same success with the infrastructure proposal. It cited polling that shows spending on infrastructure is supported by more than half of Americans.

Biden's team members "have pretty successfully re-positioned the idea of unity to mean a super-majority of the country supports what they are doing -- the test is not whether you can get Kevin McCarthy to vote for it," John Podesta, former counselor to Obama and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, said in an interview, referring to the Republican leader in the House.

However, passing the stimulus as the U.S. recovered from the pandemic and an economic downturn will likely prove far easier than Biden's latest proposal. The argument to the public is trickier, as the price tag is larger, and its elements are disparate -- a combination of proposals to rebuild roads and bridges, increase broadband access, invest in clean energy and expand child and elderly care that is difficult to brand.

"Raising taxes in the middle of an economic crisis is incredibly misguided," said Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, the senior Republican on the tax-writing Finance Committee. "Hastily changing the tax code purely for the purposes of raising revenue will bring back inversions and foreign takeovers of U.S. companies, cost jobs, shrink domestic investment and slow down wage growth."

A new factor in the debate is resurgent U.S. job growth. The country added more than 900,000 jobs in March, more than economists had forecast, as coronavirus vaccinations accelerate and the economy reopens, a report showed Friday.

The administration will also need to accommodate the differing wings of the Democratic party. Even strong supporters expect negotiations to drag on for months, and they worry there is a limit to Congress's appetite for huge pieces of legislation in the first year of the new administration.

Even so, one White House official said anyone arguing there is not as much urgency surrounding the infrastructure proposal should talk to a mayor or governor waiting for two presidential administrations for the investments now planned.

Aides have said they want significant progress on the bill by Memorial Day, late next month. Biden last week assigned Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to take on the role of emissaries for the infrastructure package.

The five Cabinet officials started their sales tour by phoning top congressional committee chairs and ranking members last week, holding calls with bipartisan governors and mayors and doing roughly 25 TV and radio hits at both the national and local level.

Next week, the Cabinet members plan to hold a series of meetings with congressional committees once the lawmakers return from recess, said a White House official.

The administration has also been reaching out to progressive groups, labor unions, business leaders and business groups, a second White House aide said.

For the pandemic-relief bill, senior administration officials made dozens of appearances in local media and focused their efforts on key political battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia. Biden visited Wisconsin and Michigan -- states he flipped from Donald Trump to win the presidency -- to make the case directly.

"Voters agree on many more issues than elected officials," said Celinda Lake, who served as one of the top pollsters to Biden's 2020 campaign and runs the polling firm Lake Research Partners.

Recent polling from Navigator shows at least 70% of Republican voters support increased funding for highway and bridge construction, new job-training programs, expanding broadband access and making childcare more affordable for families.

Half of Republicans surveyed in the poll said they support government investment in clean energy.

And polling by Morning Consult and Politico shows 54% of voters support Biden's infrastructure plan with tax increases on corporations and Americans earning more than $400,000 -- including 32% of Republicans.

"Even things that Washington Republicans treat as polarizing, like investment in clean energy infrastructure, has support among Republicans. This is not where we were a decade ago," said Jeff Liszt, a partner at ALG Research, the top polling firm to the Biden campaign.

"If Republicans in rural areas did not like clean energy, do you think Chuck Grassley would have climbed a windmill in an ad during his last campaign?" he said.

Republicans have, meanwhile, shown they are not unified in their criticism of Biden's policies.

After the Covid-19 aid bill became law without a single Republican vote in Congress, some GOP lawmakers nevertheless promoted provisions included in it that would help their constituents. In Mississippi, for example, GOP Senator Roger Wicker lauded spending to help restaurants and small businesses.

And there's been little effort by Republicans to criticize that bill for adding to U.S. deficits and debt -- a common attack from the GOP before Trump, who cut taxes and raised spending without focusing on the budgetary impact.

Biden's allies interpret the lack of GOP message discipline as a sign that appealing to Republican voters and local leaders is a more important tactic than trying to persuade their Washington representatives.

"Immediately after the recovery act, we did not see Republicans talking about deficits and spending. We saw them talking about Dr. Seuss," Liszt said, in reference to political battles over cultural issues. "That was not an accident."

Senate official gives Democrats tool to bypass filibuster on certain bills. Here's what it means.

Savannah Behrmann USA Today

The opinion increases the number of ways Democrats can advance their agenda, like President Joe Biden's sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

Republicans have criticized the proposal from the start, with conservatives panning it as going too far beyond traditional infrastructure spending and comparing its climate measures to the Green New Deal. 

Start the day smarter. Get all the news you need in your inbox each morning.

More: Biden is pitching a big infrastructure plan, but Republicans already panned it as going too far

Reaching 60 votes in the Senate looked grim looked from the starting line: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY., said last week he would fight the plan, suggesting from the onset there would be no Republican support.

But the process — budget reconciliation — would allow Democrats to skip major procedural roadblocks, like getting 60 votes, on items related to the budget like the infrastructure bill, the next piece of Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda.

Under this process, with the Senate being tied 50-50, Vice President Kamala Harris would be able to break a tie and pass the legislation.

More: How does Biden plan to get infrastructure plan through Congress?

Usually, the Senate needs 60 votes to surpass a filibuster, meaning 10 Republicans would need to join every Democrat, and the independents who caucus with Democrats, to pass legislation if it is related to taxing and spending.

A spokesman for Schumer said Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough "has advised that a revised budget resolution may contain budget reconciliation instructions."

Simply put, this allows Democrats to bypass the filibuster and use reconciliation once more in fiscal year 2021 – and several more times next year.

Senators usually use just one opportunity to pass a budget resolution for fiscal year. But MacDonough's ruling means Democrats can amend the budget resolution used recently for the COVID stimulus bill by attaching another set of reconciliation instructions to it. 

More: Joe Biden wants to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure and jobs. These 4 charts show where the money would go.

"This confirms the Leader’s interpretation of the Budget Act and allows Democrats additional tools to improve the lives of Americans if Republican obstruction continues," Schumer's spokesman continued. 

He stressed "no decisions have been made on a legislative path forward"and "some parameters still need to be worked out," but "the Parliamentarian’s opinion is an important step forward that this key pathway is available to Democrats if needed.”

More: Biden is pitching a big infrastructure plan, but Republicans already panned it as going too far

Schumer aides had been discussing with MacDonough for weeks about whether they could use the 2021 budget resolution again. Congress used budget reconciliation to pass Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March without any Republican votes.

It is unclear what Schumer will do about the infrastructure bill and the next half of Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda, which is coming later this month.

But budget reconciliation allows Schumer to maximize options for passingBiden’s "Build Back Better" agenda if Republicans attempt to block legislation or "water down a bipartisan agreement," aides said last week.

McConnell declared plainly on Monday that Biden’s infrastructure plan is “something we’re not going to do.”

Speaking to reporters in Kentucky, McConnell said Republicans could support a “much more modest” approach, and one that doesn’t rely on corporate tax hikes to pay for it.

A core dividing line is Biden’s effort to pay for infrastructure by undoing former President Donald Trump’s tax break for corporations, a signature achievement of the Trump White House and its partners in Congress.

A single senator breaking ranks can influence the size of the package: Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., said Monday the current legislation needs "to be changed," especially in regard to the increase in corporate tax rate. 

He will be a pivotal vote for a simple majority vote in the divided Senate.

There may be constraints on what can be in legislation passed by budget reconciliation.

For example, backers of a push to raise the federal hourly minimum wage to $15 suffered a key loss in February after MacDonough ruled the measure could not be considered part of Biden's COVID relief package.

More: $15 minimum wage increase can't go in COVID relief legislation, Senate official rules

Reconciliation can also turn into a grueling process in which any senator can force a vote on an amendment.

These "vote-a-ramas" can go on for hours, requiring senators to be on the Senate floor. During the passage of the American Rescue Plan, one lasted nearly 24 hours.

$15 million renovation ensures historical Madison library will last well into the future

MADISON — The E.C. Scranton Memorial Library has anchored this Shoreline community for 121 years, but the completion of a renovation and expansion of the facility last year has positioned it for an energy efficient future.

As part of the $15 million expansion and renovation, the library now draws its energy from two renewable energy resources. The building, expanded from 20,000 square feet to 39,000 square feet, has a photovoltaic solar energy array on the newly added second story, as well as geothermal energy for heating and cooling.

“We looked at it as investment by a long-term owner,” said Graham Curtis, chairman of the library’s building committee. “This building has been around for more than 100 years and we’ve tried to do what we can to make sure it’s around for another 100 years.”

Geothermal heating systems use an electric-powered heat pump inside a home. The buried tube or pipe system, also known as ground loops, circulates fluid.

The heat pump and circulating fluid continuously transfer heat.

During summer, the geothermal system draws heat from the air in a home and transfers it to the ground, where the temperature remains at about 55 degrees. In winter, it draws heat from the ground and transfers it to the home.

Curtis said the geothermal heating and cooling system has begun reducing the library’s energy bills by 35 percent when compared to a similar-sized building with a boiler that runs on oil. By combining a solar array and geothermal heating system, he said the library’s energy bills are being cut in half.

“There are going to be a lot of days in which we are not going to be using any energy that is generated off-site,” Curtis said.

Taking the savings into account, he said the system will pay for itself over an 8- to 10-year period.

Mike Trahan, executive director of the trade group Solar Connecticut, said some of Connecticut’s more historical libraries aren’t necessarily the best candidates for rooftop solar.

“A lot of old-style New England libraries have roofs with a lot of angles that present unique challenges if you’re trying to maximize the amount of electricity being generated,” Trahan said. “To do that, you really need a flat roof.”

The ability to install a solar array at E.C. Scranton was made possible by adding the geothermal system to the renovation and expansion project, according to Curtis.

“We were able to put a lot more photovoltaic (panels) because we didn’t have to have a lot of air-handling equipment on the roof,” he said.

In order to make the geothermal heating and cooling system work, construction crews needed to drill 25 wells beneath what ultimately has become the library’s expanded parking lot, according to Curtis.

“Long before the project even got started, our board of trustees had been inquiring about acquiring adjacent properties because the library didn’t have enough parking,” he said.

Curtis said it took about two-and-a-half months just to drill the wells.

The renovation and expansion project was started in October 2018 and completed last July. A temporary Durham Road location served the public in the interim before being closed in mid-March 2020 due to COVID-19.

The planning process for the project stretches back 15 years, according to Curtis.

There were hurdles along the way, including a 2008 referendum when the idea was shot down by more than 400 votes. A scaled-down plan was approved in 2017.

In addition to the two renewable energy systems, the newly renovated and expanded library includes:

 Study rooms and meeting space for community groups.

 A “makers space” complete with a Cricut, a computer-controlled cutting machine for crafting projects.

 Self-checkout kiosks.

 Public computers.

 A cafe area, where visitors can bring in food and socialize, read or relax at high-top tables and chairs.

Despite the modernization and installation of the renewable energy systems, Curtis said the building committee worked with the project architect, South Windsor-based Drummey Rosane Anderson, “to make sure it (the expansion and renovation) fit in with the existing look of the building and streetscape around it.” The original library building is on the State Register of Historic Places.

The library is a nonprofit entity that gets some money from the town, Curtis said. To pay for the costs associated with the project, the town provided $9 million of the total cost and $2 million came from the state.

The library did fundraising to cover the remaining portion of the project’s cost.

Louisiana Avenue Bridge replacement almost complete

Brian M Johnson 

BRISTOL – The Louisiana Avenue Bridge replacement project is entering its final phases, with completion anticipated for June 2021.

The bridge, originally built in 1941 according to City Engineer Nancy Levesque, was recommended for replacement following a state inspection.

“The state does inspections on bridges every couple of years and rates them,” she said. “Per the rating, we were told that we need to replace the bridge.”

Following this, the City Council approved the $3.7 million project on April 14, 2020, with the state reimbursing 80% of project costs.

Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu said that work originally began in June 2020 and that the project was scheduled for a road opening by Nov. 2020.

“Temporary paving was installed for the winter, with final paving scheduled for May,” she said. “A completion date of June 2021 is anticipated due to environmental scheduling constraints, and complications due to the pandemic.”

City Councilor Mary Fortier, who represents the district with the bridge and serves on the Public Works Board, said that detours will be put into place as work re-commences on April 13. Work is expected to last approximately one month.

“Your cooperation in avoiding the area during the duration of the project is appreciated,” said Fortier.

Levesque said that the work that remains is to remove the temporary paving, install a bridge membrane and new approach slabs and then to finish paving. A water line connection, which was temporarily removed during construction, is also being redone as part of the project.

Last year, construction crews removed the old bridge and improved sidewalks. They constructed the bridge abutments and walls and installed a new drainage system and a new bridge deck.

BL Companies, of Meriden, is responsible for the design, construction, engineering and inspection portions of the project. The construction work has been contracted to Schultz Corporation, of Terryville.

Questions and/or comments regarding the project can be directed to Nancy Levesque, P.E., City Engineer at 860-584-6125 or nancylevesque@bristolct.gov, or Adam Dawidowiz, of BL Companies, at 860-760-1910 or adawidowiz@BLcompanies.com.

 A parking lot in Hartford could be the key to redevelopment near the Capitol. The state has put the Frog Hollow property up for sale.

Kenneth R. Gosselin 

HARTFORD — As Hartford examines the future of parking lots at key development locations in the city, the state of Connecticut is putting up for sale one it owns a short walk from the state Legislative Office Building, making it ripe for redevelopment that could build on recent projects in the Frog Hollow neighborhood.

The 1.2-acre surface lot at the corner of Broad Street and Capitol Avenue is on a priority list of state-owned properties located in federal “Opportunity Zones” that could be sold for redevelopment, with the intent of strengthening city neighborhoods, getting the properties back on the property tax rolls and giving investors tax incentives.

 “It is a very rare opportunity to develop a piece of property on Capitol Avenue,” said Shane P. Mallory, administrator for statewide leasing and property transfer for the state Department of Administrative Services, which is handling the sale. “So we think it has a lot of potential.”

The parking lot — now used by state employees during the week and the public on weekends — comes up for sale without an asking price as the debate over the number of parking lots in locations around the city prime for redevelopment has again heated up in recent months.

A proposal by city Councilman John Q. Gale to significantly raise licensing fees for parking operators to encourage redevelopment was put off by the council in January — at least for the near future. But the city is pushing ahead with a comprehensive study of parking needs throughout Hartford, not only surface lots, but garages and on-street parking.

One issue is likely to be the development of the $200 million-plus “North Crossing” — the former Downtown North — which will gradually replace surface lots used by downtown workers and visitors to Dunkin’ Donuts Park over the next five or so years.

The Capitol Avenue parking lot is located in an area that may be poised for larger change. Just to the north is the former Broad Street headquarters of The Courant, which reportedly is for sale. But brokers in the city say there is no active listing for either sale or lease. CBRE, the commercial real estate services firm representing the property, declined to comment.

The lot at 340 Capitol Ave. has existed for nearly 20 years, replacing a former factory that was converted into an office for state workers in the late 1960s. At the time, the developer crowed that the 4-story structure — dating to the early 1900s — looked like a “solid, sound structure that would last 200 years,” according to a story in The Courant.

The building’s life span proved considerably shorter, however, as it headed for demolition in 2002, 1-inch cracks discovered in walls with a foundation that was slowly sinking. The state had purchased the building for $3.8 million in 1984, a section of the Park River, enclosed in a buried conduit, on the property’s northern border.

The area is zoned for mixed-use redevelopment and could potentially build on other recent redevelopment projects in the area, the largest being the conversion of the former Hartford Office Supply building — now the Capitol Lofts — into 112 mixed-income rentals. The $36 million project. which included $7 million in state-taxpayer backed loans from the Capital Region Development Authority, was completed in late 2016.

Sarah McCoy, co-owner of the Story & Soil coffee shop on Capitol Avenue across from the Capitol Lofts, said she would like to see a redevelopment with more retail — a restaurant or shops.

“When people come into Story and Soil and ask, ‘Where should we go next?’ — kind of using us as a concierge for the city, we can point them to great historical things and we can point them to Pratt Street, but there is not that kind of retail hub that tourists are necessarily looking for,” McCoy said.

The city clearly wants to extend the success of Capitol Lofts and small businesses like Story and Soil, which will enter its fourth year on Capitol Avenue in July, said I. Charles Mathews, the city’s director of developmental services.

“I want a developer to come and think outside the box, come up with a concept consistent with zoning that may work and that’s fundable,” Mathews said. “As you well know, with all developers — their concept is only as good as their ability to get financing for the project.”

It is also conceivable that a buyer might want to keep the property as it now is, just for parking.

Michael W. Freimuth, CRDA’s executive director, said the quasi-public agency has not been approached by any potential buyer for possible public financing.

One challenge to the redevelopment, Freimuth said, is the requirement that the buyer replace the 160 spaces now used by state employees, either on the property or somewhere nearby. That, Freimuth said, will “complicate deal-making.”

“It’ll either compromise land sale price or increase development costs,” Freimuth said. “There’ll need to be some creative shared parking that is allowed by zoning.”

Mallory, of the Department of Administrative Services, said the state wants to get properties like the one on Capitol Avenue back on the tax rolls, but the state has to find a way to replace the lost parking without incurring more expenses.

Sen. Murphy and Mayor Bronin urge support for ‘transformative’ infrastructure projects, including fixing I-84 and 1-91 interchange

Rebecca Lurye

HARTFORD — U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin warned Monday that much of President Biden’s proposed infrastructure spending could be eaten up by long-overdue maintenance of Connecticut’s aging roads, bridges and railroads.

“We’ve got to find a way to make sure this investment doesn’t just fix what’s broken but actually changes the experience for consumers of transportation, that it makes transit times shorter and easier and we’ve got to focus on all means of transit,” Murphy said. He visited Hartford to discuss how national transit funding may help transform the capital region, and hear from locals equally concerned with the dangers pedestrians face in the city today.

At Hartford city hall, Murphy, Bronin and representatives of the Department of Transportation, Connecticut Airport Authority and several community groups shared what ongoing efforts they hope will get a boost from President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion jobs, infrastructure and climate spending plan, which includes $115 billion for roads and bridges, $85 billion for transit and $20 billion to reduce traffic deaths.

Murphy said that proposed package could help realize some of Connecticut’s biggest transportation priorities, such as replacing the I-84/I-91 and “mix-master” highway interchanges in Hartford and East Hartford.

The state is beginning a multi-year study of that two-mile section of highway and expects to develop a list of recommended projects by the end of next year.

“I hope as congress now takes its turn and considers this package, there is strong consideration given to the opportunity to make transformative investments to transit,” Bronin said.

The senator called the development of those interchanges — which segregated Hartford’s North End from the downtown and stunted the growth of East Hartford — “one the biggest equity mistakes that has ever been perpetuated on our region.”

Meanwhile, local advocates for public and multi-modal transportation say they don’t want major, long-term projects to overshadow Hartford’s urgent needs, such as a rise in pedestrian deaths.

Last year was exceptionally deadly, despite the pandemic taking many cars off the roads. According to a preliminary count by the state DOT, 65 pedestrians died on Connecticut roads in 2020, six more than in 2019.

Groups like the Center for Latino Progress and Connecticut Association for Community Transportation want to see more “Complete Streets” projects that make existing roads safer and more inviting for pedestrians, cyclists and bus-riders of all ages and disabilities.

Sahar Amjad of Transport Hartford Academy, a Center for Latino Progress program that engages residents around transportation, said requests for small-scale fixes like bike routes and sidewalks get overshadowed by “flashy” projects like the interchange.

U.S. Rep. John Larson has said that could cost $10 billion over multiple years.“Those big investments must not distract us from the emergency of investments we need to protect a cyclist and a pedestrian in Hartford and the rest of the state,” said Thomas Regan-Lefebvre, also of Transport Hartford Academy.

Murphy didn’t give details about how infrastructure spending could look in Connecticut.

Nationally, the $2 trillion package proposes spending more than $100 billion for improving sewers and replacing lead water pipes, $100 billion for high-speed computer broadband, $100 billion for public schools, and $100 billion for improving the electric grid.