CT Construction Digest Tuesday February 25, 2020
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, many of whom helped block Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan to increase funding for transportation with truck tolls, called on the governor and legislature Monday to deliver millions of dollars in improvements to the Waterbury Line of Metro North.
“We’re done talking. We want action,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. “The state of Connecticut needs this, not just the region that we’re from. It needs it, because it will push the state forward.”
At a press conference and then at a public hearing before the legislature’s Transportation Committee, legislators and municipal officials made a compelling case for investing at least $250 million in mass transit in the corridor running from Bridgeport to Waterbury and beyond.
“It was an impressive showing, no doubt,” Rep. Roland J. Lemar, D-New Haven, the committee co-chair, told the last of the legislative witnesses. “We all believe that investments in transportation pay off.”
Then he smiled and added that reaching a consensus on investment is easy, while agreeing on how to finance those investments is not.
“It’s frustrating that folks have trouble connecting those two things,” Lemar said.
Every lawmaker who testified at the public hearing in support of Naugatuck Valley transportation investments was opposed to tolls, and no one suggested sources of new revenue that could subsidize an expansion of rail service through their districts.
But, as Reiss noted, the governor’s proposed transportation investments for the Naugatuck Valley came with a call for new revenue, originally tolls on all motor vehicles and, more recently, only on tractor trailers at a dozen highway bridges.
CT2030, the governor’s transportation infrastructure plan, called for more than $19 billion in improvements that the administration says are necessary over the next decade to return roads and bridges to a state of good repair and shorten car and rail commute times.
Last week, the governor effectively walked away from truck tolls after Senate Democrats postponed a tentative vote. With House and Senate Democrats refusing to go first on a tolls vote, Lamont said he was moving on to alternatives. A short-term fix is likely to be reserving at least $200 million in general-obligation borrowing for transportation, a step that will squeeze funds for other capital projects.
Truck tolls would not have contributed directly to rail improvements: The plan abandoned last week called for toll gantries on a dozen highway bridges, with the revenue restricted to paying for debt service on repairs to those structures. But new funding for bridges would ease demands on the state’s underfunded Special Transportation Fund, which uses taxes on fuel and motor vehicles, as well as various transportation-related fees, to pay for other transportation operating and capital costs.
Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, said at the press conference that the Waterbury Line is deserving of a greater share of existing transportation investments.
Lemar, a mass-transit advocate who often takes the train from New Haven to Hartford, said it was encouraging to hear so many legislators extolling the virtue of transit-oriented development.
Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess III of Naugatuck said developers have identified nearly 240 acres of developable land within a half-mile of the six stations on the Waterbury Line. With the appropriate transit investments, the region could become an economic engine, he said.
The state already has invested $90 million in a positive control safety system on the line, he said.
“Your investment is totally wasted if we don’t have the trains. We can’t make it happen,” Hess said. “We can’t have TOD, we can’t have what everyone else has with the train cars.”
Collectively, Democrats and Republicans have proposed five transportation financing plans, though none has come to floor vote in either the House or Senate. Lamont originally proposed a comprehensive tolls system for cars and trucks that could have raised as much as $800 million annually. It was downsized twice, ending with a trucks-only plan raising about $175 million.
The GOP has declined to support any plans with tolls — or any other form of new revenue.
“No caucus has had a bill they were able to get through,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. “If we all agree transportation is a problem, we all should share in the failure of that.”
Tenants sought for mixed-use development in Cheshire
Michelle Tuccitto Sullo
A 107-acre tract in Cheshire along the I-691 corridor has been branded as Stone Bridge Crossing and is now being advertised as available for lease for a variety of potential uses, including for a hotel, assisted living, restaurant, retail space and residences.
The currently wooded property at the town’s north end has long been eyed as prime real estate for potential development because of its proximity to both I-691 and I-84. Over the last few years, prior plans, such as for a shopping plaza, never came to fruition.
Last summer, Miller Napolitano Wolff LLC and Tri-Star Development LLC secured approval from the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission to subdivide the land, at 1953 and 2037 Highland Ave., into eight lots.
Recently, a large sign was posted on Highland Avenue (Route 10) to bring attention to and market the development. It advertises potential occupancy as early as 2021. Charter Realty & Development of Westport is serving as the leasing agent.
The developers are advertising opportunities for assisted living, retail/restaurant, urgent care, a convenience store/gas station and hotel on the eastern side of the acreage, off Highland Avenue. The project also includes 300 multifamily residential units near I-691.
The Ten Mile River runs through the property. According to plans on file at Town Hall, the western portion of the property is bounded by Dickerman Road. Plans are for a residential development off Dickerman Road, with the central space near the river to remain undeveloped. New roads and walking trails are also part of the plan.
The property is among the first in Cheshire encountered by motorists traveling south on Highland Ave./Route 10 from Southington or taking Exit 3 off I-691.
“It is seen as an important gateway, right at the  interchange,” said Town Planner William S. Voelker. “It invites a lot of interest, and we are keeping our fingers crossed that good things will happen there.”
According to Voelker, while the subdivision is approved, the town had not received any applications for a specific development as of this week. Prospective property users would have to come back for site plan review and approval before any construction could begin, he said.
Miller Napolitano Wolff LLC bought the property for about $1.4 million in 2005, town records show.
Blowback for Democrats?
For the foreseeable future, tolling will not return to Connecticut’s highways. Gov. Ned Lamont, arguably the foremost proponent of tolling, last week threw in the towel on the limited tolling plan he and the legislature’s Democratic majority leaders agreed to in November. Gov. Lamont, also a Democrat, doubted votes on the plan would take place.
The tolling debacle may prove devastating for Democrats in this legislative-election year.
Connecticut’s Special Transportation Fund (STF), established in 1984 to ensure the availability of money for transportation-infrastructure improvements, is in trouble. The STF may be insolvent within five years, the Connecticut Mirror reported last week. Since the mid-1980s, Capitol politicians of both parties, including Gov. Lamont and the current legislative majorities, have siphoned more than $1 billion from the STF. The STF long has been financed via fuel taxes and fees. Certain sales-tax receipts have been dedicated to it in recent years.
Ever since his 2018 campaign, Gov. Lamont had advocated instituting some form of tolling on Connecticut’s highways. In 2019, the governor offered a number of proposals. Generally speaking, Connecticut stakeholders were resistant to tolling, and that was predictable. As this column has been quick to note, the STF’s woes stem from the incompetence and/or spinelessness of politicians. Accordingly, a revival of tolling, which was phased out between 1983 and 1989, would amount to asking the people to pay for something they already paid for, and to clean up a mess they did not make.
With history being what it is, Gov. Lamont and his legislative allies should have intuitively grasped that tolling would be a non-starter. If they had, it is possible an alternative transportation plan would have been worked out some time ago. As we argued in a May 26 editorial, the fairest course would have been to use the General Fund to reimburse the STF for the $1 billion-plus that has been siphoned from it over the last three decades.
Sure, that would not have been easy to do: former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s and legislative Democrats’ 2017 pact with the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition has burdened the General Fund. Nonetheless, Gov. Lamont argued in 2018 that as organized labor’s candidate, he would be well-positioned to obtain meaningful concessions. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, a tolls supporter, works as an education coordinator for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
In the final analysis, the prolonged push for tolling was a waste of time and energy brought to Connecticut by Gov. Lamont and Democratic legislative leaders. This may cause headaches for Democrats come November, when all 187 legislative seats are up for election. Indeed, Republicans had notable successes in the 2014 and 2016 legislative elections. This resulted in a tie in the Senate and the narrowest of working majorities for House Democrats, when the legislature convened in January 2017.
Naugatuck Valley leaders make case for Waterbury rail line
PAUL HUGHES REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
HARTFORD — Leaders from the Naugatuck Valley on Monday pushed hard for additional state funding for the Waterbury branch line of the Metro-North Railroad.
Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess and Waterbury Mayor Neil M. O’Leary told state lawmakers on the Transportation Committee that much of the economic future of the Naugatuck Valley corridor rides on upgrading the rail line and expanding commuter service on it.
The two mayors testified on legislation that proposes to direct the state Department of Transportation to recommend a schedule of rail infrastructure projects for the Transportation Committee’s consideration in the 2021 legislative session.
Regarding the Waterbury branch line, Hess told committee members that action, not another study, is what is needed now.
“We don’t need a study. This has already been studied five times. The studies said we should have what we are asking for,” he testified.
Local officials, state legislators and business leaders from the Naugatuck Valley are supporting a request for $150 million for purchasing new locomotives and rail cars, plus another $40 million for developing a rail maintenance yard.
Rep. Larry B. Butler, D-72nd District, testified that legislators from Naugatuck Valley communities have supported funding for improvements and rail cars for other commuter rail lines over the years.
“Now, we’re saying it is our turn,” the Waterbury legislator said.
DOT Commissioner Joseph Giulietti testified that he is aware of that sentiment, but offered no commitments Monday.
An upgraded Waterbury branch line and improved train service will unlock the enormous potential for transit-oriented development along the Naugatuck Valley corridor that will economically benefit both the 19-town region and the state, said Rep. Rosa C. Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, co-chairwoman of the bipartisan Waterbury Rail Line Caucus.
The state government has already committed $90 million to an ongoing project to install signalization, positive train control and sidings on the Waterbury branch line to allow for two-way train service. The completion date is June 2021.
Hess and O’Leary said the state needs to increase commuter service on the rail line to follow-up on that sizable financial commitment.
“Your investment is totally wasted if we don’t have the trains,” Hess said.Advocates of the Waterbury branch line say eight locomotives and 24 rail cars are needed to meet its long-term service needs. They estimate those additions would allow for trains to run roughly every 30 minutes during the morning and afternoon peak hours and every 60 minutes during off-peak hours.Hess said delivery of new locomotives and rail cars will take four to five years once ordered, a timeline that DOT officials confirmed Monday.
More immediately, O’Leary and Hess said there needs to be one new southbound train added in the morning and a northbound train in the evening.
“We lack the number of trains needed in peak commute times. The biggest fear of passengers is missing a connection. If you miss a connection, you wait two hours or more for the next train,” said O’Leary, the chairman of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments.
There are approximately 1,000 daily riders, and ridership increased by 34% after Metro-North added one new inbound trip to the morning peak hours commute last year, said Rep. Ronald A. Napoli, D-73rd District.