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CT Construction Digest Wednesday August 11, 2021

Senate adopts budget that paves way for $3.5T spending plan

Caitlin Emma and Jennifer Scholtes 

Senate Democrats adopted a budget measure early Wednesday morning to deliver their next filibuster-proof ticket to passing major legislation against the will of their GOP colleagues.

After more than 14 hours of continuous amendment votes, the chamber adopted on party lines a 92-page framework for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion package of climate and social initiatives, including subsidized child care, expanded Medicare and paid family and medical leave benefits. Once both chambers have approved the budget instructions, it will unlock the reconciliation process, which empowers the majority party to eventually clear the final bill with just 51 votes in the Senate, rather than the usual 60-vote hurdle.

After the 50-49 vote Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the move “a massive step towards restoring the middle class” and giving “more Americans the chance to get there.”

“Democrats have labored for months to reach this point, and there are many labors to come. But I can say with absolute certainty that it will be worth doing,” Schumer said. “The Democratic budget will bring a generational transformation to how our economy works for average Americans.”

The final Senate vote Wednesday on the budget resolution, which concluded just before 4 a.m., followed a classic vote-a-rama — an amendment barrage that allows the GOP to force the majority party into a series of uncomfortable votes. To make their Democratic colleagues suffer for sidelining GOP input on the $3.5 trillion plan, Republican senators called for dozens of amendment votes on issues like critical race theory, defunding the police, immigration enforcement and using federal money to cover abortions.

Senators even had extra padding on their chairs to make the ordeal more comfortable, as they sat through the last major legislative hurrah before departing for the August recess, which was already supposed to be underway.

More than three dozen Democrats joined with Republicans in a 88-11 vote to adopt a nonbinding amendment that supports barring immigrants from being transported from the border unless they test negative for Covid.

“We have a super-spreader event at our southern border every single day,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas), the amendment’s author. “It is unacceptable for the government to be transporting illegal migrants who pose a grave risk of transmitting Covid across our nation.”

The Senate rejected an amendment by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), however, that called for “expulsions” of immigrants “who may contribute to the spread” of Covid. The chamber also batted down a proposal from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that called for denying U.S. resident status to immigrants who have criminal records. Both of those amendments fell 49-50, with all Democrats opposed.

The amendment marathon was the Senate’s third this year, after Democrats deployed the reconciliation process to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package in March.

The latest torment follows the long-awaited release of Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget framework on Monday — a price tag that might ultimately have to come down to appease Senate moderates.

Before the $3.5 trillion plan can be sent off to Biden in the coming months, the Senate will have to endure at least one more vote-a-rama. That task could potentially be more painful than the amendment spree this week, since trillions of dollars in Democratic priorities will be closer to the finish line and senators will be proposing tweaks to a much fuller legislative text than the budget framework currently under consideration.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), speaking on the floor for the first time since his breakthrough Covid infection, said the $3.5 trillion plan is “a dream for those who want to socialize” the United States and that “America as we know it is at risk in this budget resolution.”

After midnight, the Senate voted 50-49 to adopt an amendment by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to take a stance against teaching "critical race theory" in schools. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) joined Republicans in voting in support of that proposal.

Democrats joined Republicans in unanimously adopting a non-binding provision, offered by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), to reject any effort under the Green New Deal that would “ship” U.S. jobs overseas, send electricity and gas prices “soaring” or make the nation “increasingly dependent on foreign supply chains.”

Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he had “no problem” supporting the GOP amendment because it “has nothing to do with the Green New Deal!”

Democrats sidestepped more drama by unanimously backing a Republican amendment from Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) that opposed defunding the police. In a moment of levity before the vote, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) voiced enthusiastic approval, stressing that all senators should go on the record about their support for funding the police, their belief “in God, country and apple pie.”

In the same vein, nearly every Democrat backed a GOP amendment that would prohibit tax hikes in violation of Biden’s pledge to not raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 per year.

The Senate narrowly adopted a Republican messaging amendment aimed at preserving a longstanding ban on federal funding for abortion, which House Democrats eliminated from their annual spending bills this year. Manchin, a longtime supporter of the so-called Hyde amendment, was the only Democrat to break ranks and support the provision.

Lawmakers unanimously adopted a provision from Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) that targets a Democratic plan to go after dynastic wealth. The amendment opposes an end to the tax exemption that allows the wealthy to pass assets on to heirs tax-free by forgiving capital gains taxes on things like company stock and land when people die. The Biden administration is proposing to allow farms and small businesses to postpone paying the tax until the business or farm is sold or ceases to be family-owned and operated.

"Changing this would hit generations in rural communities and force families to pay off part of the farm or business to pay the new tax,” Thune said.

Every senator also backed an amendment from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) that seeks to recognize the law enforcement officers who fought and died protecting the Capitol Building during the Jan. 6 insurrection. In addition to the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick following the attack, four law enforcement officers who responded to the Capitol that day have since died by suicide.

"The insurrection at the Capitol was more than an assault on Democracy," Klobuchar said on the floor, "it was an actual life-or-death situation for the many brave law enforcement officers who show up here to work every single day."

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate voted 69-30 to pass a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill. Democratic leaders have pledged to move the infrastructure package and their party-line reconciliation measure along two tracks at the same time, tying together the success of both bills.

Democrats’ multitrillion-dollar spending package would bolster Medicare to cover vision, dental and hearing benefits for seniors. It aims to extend Medicaid to Americans in Republican-led states that have refused to expand the health program for low-income individuals. And it would keep new Obamacare subsidies, too, and make in-home care available to more people.

To help offset the cost of the plan, Democrats are proposing to raise taxes on top earners, corporations, overseas profits and capital gains.

The measure also instructs the Senate Judiciary Committee to find a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. That directive could ultimately run into resistance from the Senate parliamentarian — the upper chamber’s procedural referee — who will decide which provisions pass muster with certain reconciliation restrictions.

Democrats did not include a debt ceiling increase in their budget resolution, instead daring Republicans to reject a bipartisan solution to the cap on the nation’s borrowing authority. In a letter released on Tuesday, 46 Senate Republicans promised to oppose a debt limit hike.

The Treasury Department is expected to run out of money sometime from September to November.

Biden's $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill could take years to transform U.S.

Jeff Stein and Michael Laris, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - It has taken years for Congress to finally get behind its long-imagined goal of legislation to upgrade the nation's ailing infrastructure. And even if signed into law this fall, it could take many more still for Americans to feel its full impact.

While President Joe Biden's stimulus plan delivered tangible economic benefits to most of the country within weeks, key parts of the infrastructure plan the Senate passed on Tuesday morning may take the better part of a decade to come to fruition. The proposal must still clear the House of Representatives.

Substantial pots of funding are likely to be quickly disbursed, particularly for updating existing projects, such as repaving the nation's roads. But major public works projects often have to go through a lengthy process - from federal agency to locality to private builder - and may not result in new usable infrastructure for years.

The long-term nature of the benefits may push completion of many of its projects into the next administration, which could complicate who receives its political benefits. The White House maintains the package will create both short-term and lasting economic benefits for the nation, and pointed to polls showing it is widely popular among voters of both parties.

Through a separate process known as reconciliation, the administration is also moving toward delivering a major expansion of immediate economic benefits ahead of the 2022 midterm election, including continuing a new child benefit for 90% of American parents that was launched in the stimulus and new Medicare benefits for tens of millions of American seniors. The reconciliation package could pass this fall with a slew of additional federal benefits, such as tuition-free community college and universal prekindergarten.

Of the infrastructure legislation's $566 billion in new spending, only about $20 billion will be spent by the end of fiscal year 2022, according to estimates based on Congressional Budget Office reports by Marc Goldwein, senior vice president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan think tank, and Donald Schneider, who served as an economist for Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee. The fiscal year 2022 ends right before the 2022 midterm elections.

Roughly $125 billion, or about a quarter of the funding, will go out by September 2024 - right ahead of the 2024 presidential elections, Goldwein and Schneider have found. Annual federal spending from the bill ramps up from there in fiscal years 2025, 2026 and 2027.

Those allocations represent only when the money is disbursed, but in some cases states will be able to start spending funding with the expectation they will later be reimbursed by the federal government. These numbers do not include an extension of highway and transit funding that was already expected to occur before the infrastructure bill, although its extension is included as part of the package.

"It's going to be a real challenge to get political credit for projects that get finished three, four or five years from now, and that's when the bulk of the projects will be completed," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "We're talking about a lot of long-lived projects - broadband, power infrastructure, water systems, even public transit and rail - and that's going to take awhile to go from start to end."

The infrastructure bill devotes billions of dollars to pillars of the American economy that many experts believe are in dire need of repair - highways, roads, bridges, water systems, and commuter and passenger rail lines.

Jim Tymon, executive director of American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said that if Congress passes the bill, money will start through existing federal channels to states and cities as soon as October.

"There's enough out there that's ready to go that the impact will be felt pretty quickly," Tymon said. "They're ready to . . . take those dollars and convert them into projects that are going to make a real difference in people's quality of life."

Even before the money goes out the door, it will set plans in motion that Biden officials can seize on as evidence that their investments are producing results. And there are important policy justifications for taking time to ensure the funding is spent appropriately, experts say.

Tymon said a second tranche will take more time, such as spurring the development of electric-vehicle charging stations. States also operate on multiyear plans for their more ambitious initiatives, he said.

"Having the predictability of 5 years of federal funding allows them to develop those plans" more strategically, Tymon said, "rather than having to react on a year-to-year basis" depending on the whims of Washington. Practically speaking, that could mean moving major projects up "to year 3 or 4, rather than 7 or 8," of a long-term plan, he said.

Ray LaHood, President Barack Obama's first transportation secretary, said there are vast and complex projects that will extend over years, such as a new train tunnel under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey and Penn Station in Manhattan, known as the Gateway Program, or major bridge replacements. But, LaHood added, there is also a pipeline of road, transit and other projects that states can jump on quickly, making a swift impact.

In many cases, the necessary environmental documents are already in hand, he said. When construction season begins in earnest next year in states with tough winter weather, and earlier in places like Arizona and Florida, "you're going to see hundreds and hundreds of orange cones going up all over the country, where workers are going to be repaving roads and building bridges, and that process is a long-standing partnership with the governors."

"Many of these states are just one big pothole," LaHood said, and governors are primed to make repairs. Amtrak has projects ready to go now, as do transit systems, he said.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement that the infrastructure agreement would fulfill the president's campaign promise "by achieving progress in almost every major area it touches within a year," including roads and bridges, transit, high-speed internet and clean energy.

"These investments will pay off for American families in the short, medium, and long run - even for decades to come and the next generation, just like the Transcontinental Railroad and the interstate highway system," Bates said.

Still, prior efforts to revamp the nation's infrastructure offer cautionary tales. In 2009, Obama approved infrastructure legislation that sent $3.5 billion to California for high-speed rail funding intended to transform how residents travel. About 12 years later, California travelers can point to little that has changed in their daily lives beyond intensified bickering among local officials over how to proceed.

The project has been bogged down by a lengthy construction process, in part due to U.S. inexperience constructing high-speed rail and because federal dollars forced the state to start construction before all the necessary land had been acquired. Forcing the rail line to go via a more populated but less direct north-south route appeared to appease political demands but delayed construction.

"We barely have 100 miles to show for it and even that's not really to completion," said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law Center for Law, Energy & the Environment.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill earmarks $66 billion for passenger and freight rail - funding for which high-speed rail projects are expected to be eligible to apply. Elkind said the new rail funding will take years to translate into tangible improvements, arguing the projects require excessive environmental site reviews.

"Planning alone often can take minimum a couple of years, but often longer than that, particularly if there's litigation," Elkind said. "These projects take way too long to build - sometimes decades - so that is a real problem, even if the investments are worthwhile."

Some analysts also said the gradual spending path makes sense, given concerns that too much government spending is causing inflation in the current economy. Critics have already accused Democrats of pouring too much new federal funding into the economy through the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, one of the Republicans backing the legislation, recently defended the legislation from critics by pointing out "it's not money that will be spent next year" and that projects may last 10 to 15 years before their completion.

Some experts contended Congress may be missing an opportunity to improve the process and speed for building infrastructure in the United States.

Compared with other rich European countries, the United States spends up to five times as much on similar infrastructure projects, according to a report by the Niskanen Center, a libertarian leaning think tank.

Rail transit costs about 50% more on a per-mile basis to build in the United States compared with global peers, while tunneled projects take nearly a year-and-a-half longer to build, the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank, has found.

Some proposed changes, like improving state project selection decisions, were largely left out of the Senate's agreement. It is unclear how or if the legislation will change when it reaches the House of Representatives.

"They negotiated over what to spend money on, but there has been virtually no attention paid to how the U.S. actually does infrastructure," said Sam Hammond, a policy expert at the Niskanen Center. "They're pouring money at particular projects, but aren't taking this as an opportunity to do deeper structural reforms needed to ensure you get bang for your buck. As we know from Obama's 2009 recovery act, you can come up with the money for a wish list of projects but that does not mean they come to fruition."

Other experts contend the lack of funding - partially addressed by the bill - has proved the real obstacle to completing infrastructure projects. Lawmakers should also be wary about building too quickly without proper environmental review, an omission that could in particular harm poor and minority communities, said Kevin DeGood, an infrastructure expert at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

"These investments will work their way through our system over 5 to 10 years, and that won't really be an arc of time that people will register," DeGood said. "But the overarching stumbling block to project completion is money. On the public infrastructure side, the handicap has been lack of funding."

Either way, the backlog of new funding could take time to clear. For instance, $15 billion in new federal funding to replace the nation's lead service water pipelines will be allocated to the states' drinking water revolving funds. If a state already has replacement projects underway that are pending - such as Illinois - the money can be disbursed relatively quickly. But about 40 states have not conducted a formal survey to estimate how many lead service lines they have in operation, a step that would help expedite their access to funding for replacements.

"In 40 states, they do not have a good handle on how many lead service lines they have and so the money won't go out the door quickly," said Erik Olson, a water infrastructure expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It will take some time, though we don't know how long."

John Porcari, a former deputy U.S. transportation secretary who was interim executive director of the Gateway project, said projects like repaving roads or working on storm drains will have immediate positive impacts on communities and employment.

"But no one would argue those are transformative projects," said Porcari, who led Maryland's transportation department and is now managing partner of infrastructure consulting firm 3P Enterprises.

For those bigger efforts, "philosophically, everybody needs to understand that you break ground on projects other people finish, and you cut ribbons on projects other people have started for you," Porcari said. "We're living off assets our great grandparents bought and paid for. It's time for us to pay it forward. Who gets the credit should be a secondary concern."

It's now Pelosi's move on bipartisan roads bill

Mike Lillis and Scott Wong

The Senate's approval of a massive infrastructure bill on Tuesday sends the proposal to the House - and confronts Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) with some tricky questions over how to proceed.

Already, Pelosi is facing competing pressure from moderate Democrats, who want a quick vote to notch a big bipartisan win, and liberals, who want to sit on the bill until the Senate passes an even larger social benefits package, a tactic that Pelosi has enthusiastically endorsed.

House leaders took the unexpected step Tuesday of cutting their seven-week recess short, with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announcing in a letter to lawmakers that the chamber will return to session on Aug. 23 to consider the larger Democratic package, assuming Senate adoption this week.

That increases the odds of House passage of the infrastructure bill sooner rather than later, but it doesn't shut the door on another group of powerful voices urging the Speaker to reject the Senate infrastructure bill as it stands, and force conference talks between the two chambers.

That's a risky strategy, given the long, delicate nature of the Senate negotiations and the necessity of Republican support for the final product.

But it's also an approach that had powerful advocates, including Hoyer and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. DeFazio has been highly critical of Democrats in the Senate and White House for excluding climate provisions contained in his House-passed bill - an argument likely to gain steam in the wake of a new United Nations report warning of the existential threat posed by global warming.

"Unfortunately, this package falls short when it comes to addressing climate change like the existential threat it is, and the world's scientists only reinforced the need for additional action in the IPCC's latest alarming report," DeFazio said Tuesday in a statement. He did not mention a conference but vowed to continue pressing for "transformational funding and policies" to reduce transportation pollution in phase two of the Democrats' infrastructure plan.

Tuesday's Senate vote approving the bipartisan agreement lends enormous momentum to the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package, which stands among President Biden's most pressing domestic priorities. And within minutes of the successful Senate vote, two groups of House moderates called on Pelosi and other Democratic leaders to bring the legislation to the floor immediately.

Eight moderates, led by Problem Solvers Caucus co-Chairman Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), wrote in a letter to Pelosi that "we must bring this bipartisan infrastructure bill to the House floor for a standalone vote" without any strings attached to the larger $3.5 trillion package.

"After years of waiting, we cannot afford unnecessary delays to finally deliver on a physical infrastructure package," wrote the moderate Democrats, including Reps. Susie Lee (Nev.), Filemon Vela (Texas), Henry Cuellar (Texas) and Jared Golden (Maine).

And the leaders of the Blue Dog Democrats issued a statement echoing calls for a quick vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure package.

"The Co-Chairs of the Blue Dog Coalition remain opposed to any effort to unnecessarily delay consideration of these critical infrastructure investments, which will create good-paying jobs, keep American businesses competitive, and grow our nation's economy," wrote Democratic Reps. Tom O'Halleran (Ariz.), Ed Case (Hawaii), Stephanie Murphy (Fla.), Abigail Spanberger (Va.) and Kurt Schrader (Ore.).

Pelosi, however, has telegraphed other plans, making clear in recent weeks that she won't stage a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill before the Senate adopts a second package amalgamating a long list of Democratic priorities, including an expansion of safety net programs, environmental protections, health care coverage and immigrant benefits.

The House would then vote afterward on both bills.

Speaking Tuesday at an event in San Francisco, Pelosi praised the Senate for passing the bill. But she quickly emphasized that it falls far short of what Biden and congressional Democrats intended when they launched their infrastructure push, and she dismissed calls to vote on infrastructure before the details of a reconciliation package emerge.

"Reconciliation will be a fuller reflection of our values," she said.

Her message has heartened liberals in the caucus, who remain distrustful of Senate moderates and want to use the infrastructure vote as leverage to compel those senators to back the nascent second package. Because the social benefits legislation is slated to move under special budget rules, known as reconciliation, no Republican support will be needed to pass it through the upper chamber provided all 50 members of the Democratic caucus stick together.

"We have been clear for three months that we are not going to vote for the bipartisan package unless there is a reconciliation package that has passed, that includes sufficient funding for our five priorities," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "That has been our position for three months. It also became the position of the Speaker, and the Senate majority leader, and so we're grateful for that.

"We need to deliver the entirety of these two packages together."

Yet DeFazio has warned that crucial elements of his $715 billion water and transportation package, which the House passed last month, will be lost if they're not incorporated into the bipartisan infrastructure bill since the budget rules don't allow for policy changes to move through reconciliation. He's sounding alarms that without those "transformational" changes - including an aggressive shift toward rail and mass transit - the Senate bill would simply ossify "highway-centric" policies that have contributed heavily to atmospheric carbon dioxide, thereby exacerbating the climate crisis.

"You can't make significant policy - you can't do the things I'm going to do to make states look at alternatives to just paving everything over - in the dead-guy rule. Robert Byrd would say no," a frustrated DeFazio told reporters just before the recess. He was referring to budget rules named after the late West Virginia senator - rules the Transportation chairman abhors.

Hoyer, an institutionalist, has also endorsed the conference strategy. And in the wake of Tuesday's Senate vote, some rank-and-file Democrats are piling on, wary that the House is being trampled by the upper chamber.

"The Senate #infrastructure bill is a step forward but leaves out many House priorities, including member-designated projects," Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.) tweeted. "I support @TransportDems Chairman @RepPeterDeFazio's push for a House-Senate conference - the House is a co-equal chamber."

Despite the grumbling from some liberals angry over the climate exclusions and a host of conservative Republicans objecting to the levels of new spending, the infrastructure package is expected to pass through the House with bipartisan support.

It's unclear how many House Republicans would back the proposal. But Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), a prominent member of the Problem Solvers group, suggested it would be a significant tally.

"It's a work in progress," he said, "but we'll be there."

West Haven flexes development potential with Sawmill Road groundbreaking

Brian Zahn

WEST HAVEN — It’s a perfect example of the city’s economic potential, according to officials.

City officials seized an opportunity to celebrate Tuesday at a groundbreaking ceremony for a 24-hour 7-Eleven convenience store that will have 20 gas pumps for passenger vehicles, and two counter-service restaurants.

“We talk about how West Haven has so much potential, and this is our potential which wasn’t being used,” said Christine Gallo, chairwoman of the West Haven Economic Development Commission.

The 480 Sawmill Road site has sat vacant for roughly 15 years, previously having been a Staples office supply store until 2006. The building was razed and now construction of a 5,635-square-foot building and 38 parking spaces has begun.

Saw Mill WH LLC purchased 458 and 480 Sawmill Road for $3.6 million from previous owner West Haven Mall LLV on June 16.

Jed and Jack Hayes, father and son developer representatives of project co-developer Sullivan Hayes, said West Haven is ideal for their project because Sawmill Road is densely populated and also highly visible from the highway.

Gallo said an estimated 120,000 cars pass by the location on Interstate-95 daily, previously with nothing to attract people’s attention and urge them to get off the highway.

The project is just one of several going on in West Haven: In the last few months, the city has seen the sales or redevelopment of several significant blighted or vacant properties — such as the Savin Rock Plaza and Chick’s Seafood Restaurant at the city’s shoreline, the proposed The Haven luxury outlet project as well as the future 7-Eleven property.

Chick’s ran for 65 years serving split hot dogs, lobster rolls and fried seafood on the city’s shoreline. The site was sold for $1 million in July.

Mayor Nancy Rossi said the Sawmill Road development “brings us closer to our economic development goals.”

In the past, Rossi has said she believes the recent development interest in West Haven is tied to the city’s improving budgetary situation.

Still, Rossi’s political opponents have said the last months of big development announcements distract from more fundamental issues.

“I wish the new developers of the site great success. Unfortunately, they are a rare exception to the many developers, property owners and real estate agents I have spoken to most recently and over the last couple of decades regarding how hard West Haven is to do business with,” said Barry Lee Cohen, a Republican councilman running for mayor.

“We are known and continue to be known as the city of missed opportunities,” he said. “And this will be my administration’s absolute top priority: to ensure we are a city businesses and developers want to do business with.”

Steven Mullins, who is working to petition his way onto the ballot for a Republican primary against Cohen, said he believes the 7-Eleven project is “a step in the right direction” but it was a citywide effort, including the Planning and Zoning Commission, on which he serves as a commissioner.

“For 15 years this city was desolate and depressing. Fifteen years ago there was no reason to get off this exit,” Mullins said. “We can still do better. The city has a lot of work to do.”

Rossi said when she took office in 2017 “the noose around my neck was the economic condition” of the city.

“Developers and employees are not coming if you’re in poor economic condition,” she said.

Rossi denied that any developer had expressed interest in working with the city and subsequently walked away because the city was not business-friendly enough. She said the speed with which the Sawmill Road project is being developed is evidence of the city’s welcoming attitude toward business.

“I’m happy at the speed this is progressing. I’m thrilled to death that dirty building is already down,” she said.

Jed Hayes said he was pleased that everyone, from the city to 7-Eleven, stuck with the project after initial plans to purchase the building shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Connecticut ended up being delayed until this June. He said the initial work on the site will be to raise it 12 feet “so it’s not the hole in the ground it once was.”

Gallo said she believes West Haven is the “national seat of potential.”

“Potential is a genie in a bottle. Thanks to 7-Eleven, that genie is out of the bottle,” she said.

Lamont, legislature headed for a showdown over funding of watchdog agency

Keith M. Phaneuf

Gov. Ned Lamont may be headed for a showdown with the legislature over what appears to be a fraction of the state budget too small to measure.

But what’s really at stake is the oversight of a major wind-to-energy project in Long Island Sound and whether a long-underfunded watchdog agency — founded not long after a Republican governor went to jail — should have the resources to probe this venture.

“It doesn’t matter whether we have a Democrat or a Republican in office,” said Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven. “It’s important that we have transparency.”

When it comes to the State Contracting Standards Board, “it’s very much time to fund it properly so it can do its statutory due diligence — or to disband the organization,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the other co-chair of the appropriations panel. “And I favor funding it.”

Osten, Walker and others hope to reverse what they say was a mistake Lamont and the legislature made — quickly and quietly — when the new state budget was adopted in June.

That mistake, they say, was to empower the contracting board to investigate the Connecticut Port Authority — but then to take away the extremely modest resources needed to do the job at the last minute.

The contracting board was supposed to get $450,000 extra, both this fiscal year and next, to add five staffers. With its current staff of one, the board is severely constrained.

That reversal hasn’t set well with some legislators this summer who’ve been hoping for more details about a controversial $700,000 fee the port authority paid to find an operator for a wind-farm-related project at State Pier in New London.

“It was our intention to have a robust process that the port authority was subject to,” said Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee. “An eviscerated Contracting Standards Board cannot complete the task that we had envisioned.”

Port authority has a checkered past

That task was to review the contracts and procurement policies of a group whose brief history has been mired in controversy. 

Created by the legislature in 2014 to facilitate development of Connecticut’s deep-water ports, the authority made headlines in 2019 when it paid then-Chairwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder’s daughter $3,000 for six professional photographs hung in its Old Saybrook office. Reemsnyder resigned in July of that year.

The state auditors of public accounts blasted the authority three months later, disclosing its leaders had spent thousands of dollars on expensive meals and liquor, incurred excessive legal fees and generally acted without clear policies governing purchases, personnel matters and ethics.

Lamont, who inherited the authority when he took office in January 2019, overhauled the quasi-public entity’s leadership and assigned his budget office to professionalize operations there.

The stakes are high, because the state is working with Eversource and its Denmark-based partner, Ørsted North America, to transform New London into the green energy capital of the Northeast with an offshore wind farm ultimately capable of generating 4,000 megawatt hours of electricity.

The Contracting Standards Board Chairman Lawrence Fox, a West Hartford Democrat, told the CT Mirror that the board also took an interest in early 2019. That was shortly after the authority had selected Gateway Terminal to operate State Pier and remake it into a heavy-lift capable port that can accommodate wind generation equipment.

The contracting board specifically focused on more than $700,000 in fees paid to Seabury Capital Group to help with search for a pier operator . The Day of New London first reported that those payments included a $523,000 “success” or reward fee — and that this happened three months after Henry Juan III of Greenwich, who was a managing director with Seabury, resigned from the authority board.

Juan could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

John Henshaw, who became the port authority’s executive director in September after serving as a member of the Portland Harbor Commissioner in Maine, said the authority has been cooperating with the contracting board as well as other state agencies.

Lamont’s communications director, Max Reiss, said Tuesday that “the governor’s position has not changed” and that “there are existing accountability measures in place” already without an expansion of the contracting board.

Attorney General William Tong and the state auditors also have been investigating the port authority’s contract with Seabury Capital.

Contracting board has never been properly funded

But Fox said the contracting board’s ability to make headway is severely constrained by a longstanding problem: few resources.

The board — the linchpin of the landmark “Clean Contracting” system created in 2007 by the Democrat-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell — was Connecticut’s response to the contracting scandals that drove Gov. John G. Rowland from office amid an impeachment inquiry in July 2004. Rowland later served 10 months in federal prison after admitting he accepted about $100,000 in gifts from state contractors and his staff.

The panel would be empowered to review contracts and procurement practices for most government agencies.

Not long after the board’s creation, though, Connecticut would fall into the Great Recession, and legislators and Rell would siphon away nearly all resources, leaving the volunteer standards board with no staff.

An executive director would eventually be hired, but once the recession had ended, Democrats would take control of the governor’s office — first Dannel P. Malloy, who served from 2011 through 2018, and then Lamont.

And neither has shown much need for the contracting board, which has remained fiscally shackled for nearly a decade and a half.

Malloy tried in his first six months to suspend contracting board operations for two years so he could more easily privatize state services and cut operating costs.

Lamont, who also has made no secret of his plans to privatize more state services as veteran government employees retire over the next few years, offered a bill in 2019 to make it easier to launch public-private ventures.

The legislature killed Lamont’s proposal, though, after AFL-CIO President Salvatore Luciano called it “reckless and shortsighted”  and “an alarming attempt to return us to the shadowy Rowland years.”

Budget battle isn’t really about the dollars

Leaders of the Appropriations Committee thought the contracting board was the answer this year as legislative interest in the Port Authority’s dealings grew.

After questions were raised about the contracting board’s jurisdiction regarding quasi-public entities like the Port Authority, the legislature passed a measure clarifying that the board could review such matters.

The biennial budget legislators negotiated with Lamont included just under $700,000 per year for the contracting board —the same level the board was supposed to have when it was launched 14 years ago. This year’s funding included $450,000 to fund additional positions.

But shortly after that was passed, legislative leaders — at the request of the Lamont administration — included a provision in a subsequent budget policy bill that barred the board from spending $450,000 of its annual allotment.

Fox said those funds were to create five new positions to support Executive Director David Guay — whose only assistance currently comes from a college intern.

Without those funds, Fox added, the board will do what it can, but any comprehensive review of the port authority is not realistic.

Both Osten and Walker said they will propose restoring those funds when the regular 2022 General Assembly session convenes next February — or possibly sooner. Legislative leaders have not dismissed the possibility of a special session this fall if the governor’s emergency powers tied to the coronavirus pandemic need to be extended past September.

Osten and Walker both said the administration’s discomfort with the contracting standards board is the issue, and not the proposed spending.

In the context of this fiscal year’s $20.8 billion General Fund, $450,000 is equal to about 1/462th of 1%. General Fund spending is still $22 million under the spending cap.

The legislature’s top-ranking leaders, House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, agreed money is not the issue.

“I do not think [Lamont administration officials] have any desire to see Connecticut go backwards, but they do see it as an infringement on some of the executive powers they have,” Ritter said, adding he remains hopeful some compromise on expanding contracting board resources can be reached.

Looney said he also is optimistic, adding it’s important to remember the board was broadly viewed as a much-needed reform when it was enacted following the Rowland scandals.

“We should not cavalierly undermine its potential powers and usefulness,” he said. “I think it’s another aspect of transparency in government that I think inspires greater public confidence.”

There also is bipartisan support for restoring the funds.

Senate Republicans have pressed hard for an investigation into the port authority’s actions. And Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said it’s a contradiction to empower the contracting board to review the matter — and then to deny them the necessary resources.

“This is an issue that’s really about transparency and good government,” he said. “You see the necessity, but then you’re cutting the money?”

Pending DEEP decisions could change New London’s waterfront forever

David Collins  

Leadership in the bureaucracy of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is on the brink of important decisions in two separate environmental applications, projects that together could change the look and use of New London's deepwater port for generations.

The first is a request that DEEP put a temporary stay on its plans to issue a permit to allow a remaking of State Pier for wind turbine assembly, so that an appeal of the permit decision could be heard before 7 acres of the waters of the port are filled in and lost forever.

The appeal could be brought in Superior Court for an independent assessment — a crucial review, I would suggest, since the state essentially has been acting as both applicant and judge in the matter, with state bureaucrats who report to Gov. Ned Lamont making a decision about a project promoted and paid for by the governor, largely using taxpayer money.

The state should welcome that independent assessment, but of course no one in Hartford wants to deny or delay the $150 million subsidy, in the form of a pier remake, Lamont is determined to gift to the rich wind merchants.

The request for time for an appeal comes from the operator of the road salt business that was evicted from the pier so that it could be rebuilt to accommodate the assembly of offshore wind turbines. It's just assembly. The turbines won't be manufactured anywhere near Connecticut.

The second New London port decision pending before DEEP is a request by the National Coast Guard Museum Association to erect an enormous glassy building on a tiny waterfront property with no street frontage, on a flood plain on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, in the heart of the city's transportation district.

Curiously, the opposition to the applications for both the State Pier and museum projects is based on the same coastal resources law that says development on the waterfront should be restricted to things that are dependent on using the coastal waters.

In the case of State Pier, the pending DEEP decision suggests in part the agency doesn't have to favor one water-dependent use over another, even a preexisting one, or that ships taking freshly assembled wind turbines offshore are just as dependent on water access as a business importing road salt on ships. You can eliminate one water-dependent use, goes the reasoning, if you replace it with another.

I'd like to see an independent review of that conclusion.

I would suggest that closing the port to traditional shipping and shutting down the supply of salt used to keep the region's roads safe in the winter is just the kind of loss of water-dependent use that lawmakers were trying to prevent in determining future development on waterfront property.

There is no pressing need, other than profit, for the rich utilities to use New London's port to assemble wind turbines that will be placed far offshore. Indeed, there are backup plans and assembly opportunities in other states.

The non-water-dependent-use argument against the museum application is an especially strong one.

It was made, curiously, very well by New London's Cross Sound Ferry company, which wrote a blistering letter at the time the downtown museum was proposed, saying it would use too much of the limited waterfront needed for future ferry and transportation needs.

The ferry company later recanted its opposition, after former Gov. Dannel Malloy threw into the project mix a $20 million pedestrian bridge linking the ferry's terminal building and the museum to the city garage.

Still, the company's objections against using precious flood-vulnerable property in the space-challenged transportation district remains a powerful argument against DEEP issuing that permit.

My request for emails from Lamont's office to DEEP regarding the two projects have gone unanswered, and the matter seems headed for an eventual review by the Freedom of Information Commission.

I suspect, if I ever get to see the emails, that the governor's hand in interfering with DEEP decision-making has probably been much heavier in making sure the utilities get what they want than in helping the Coast Guard build its museum.

Time may tell.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

Windsor Locks seeks site for downtown revitalization

Joe Chaisson, Journal Inquirer

Windsor Locks is in negotiations to purchase a portion of the Windsor Locks Commons as the town continues its efforts toward revitalizing the downtown Main Street section.

The area, located at 255 Main St., is home to two businesses — JJ’s News & Variety and Windsor Locks Diner — and is owned by John Lombard of Locks LLC.

During a recent Board of Selectmen meeting, First Selectman J. Christopher Kervick said the town would use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for the purchase.

The town received roughly $3.6 million, but the Board of Finance has already allocated approximately $1.2 million to cover losses related to local rental car companies from their struggles during the pandemic, which leaves $2.4 million for the town to use, the Journal Inquirer reported last month.

The purchase of the parcel was endorsed by the Downtown Development Authority, Kervick said. The committee is responsible for putting together redevelopment plans and overseeing land owned by the town involving downtown redevelopment.

The area was the last parcel developed under the town’s first redevelopment effort in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, but has since been poorly maintained, Kervick said.

“The town needs some of that property for our Main Street redesign, and we have a big grant to redesign Main Street and we need a little bit of that property to widen sidewalks and put a roundabout in, so we would carve out what we need and then sell the remainder to a developer,” Kervick said.

He added, “The problem is there is no developer out there that is ready to buy that parcel just yet.

“The best way to market property to a developer or to secure state or federal assistance with our transit-oriented development is to have site control and there’s only two ways to have site control: you either own it or have the option to buy it.”

The grant Kervick referenced is the $1.8 million Responsible Growth and Transit-Oriented Development Program grant, which was awarded to the town in December 2017.

Selectman Paul M. Harrington said he is not entirely opposed to the purchase, but noted there are risks involved.

“The terms ‘risk’ and ‘town government’ should never be put together. There is just too much at stake to take risks. This has nothing to do with who proposed the idea, or what we have in mind, there’s just too many risks,” Harrington said. “We represent over 12,000 people and we can’t afford to jeopardize the well-being of our citizens. It just sounds to me like we are prioritizing our wish list rather than our need list.”

Harrington said the risks include a lack of a developer, and the idea that the town might need funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for pandemic-related community needs in the near future, rather than economic development needs.

Selectman Scott A. Storms could not be reached for comment.

Replacement project moves forward as new bridge takes shape in Greenwich's Bruce Park

Tyler Sizemore

GREENWICH — Construction of the new Davis Avenue bridge in Bruce Park has completed a major milestone, with the new structure on target to reopen on Sept. 1, according to the town Department of Public Works.

The project is scheduled to be finished by next spring.

The preset deck unit of the bridge was lifted into place and settled on Aug. 2, the DPW said in a statement Monday.

The original bridge was built in 1934 and had deteriorated, making it critical to replace the old span, the state determined. The DPW devised the project after inspectors labeled the bridge “functionally obsolete” and the Connecticut Department of Transportation lowered the load rating from 34 tons to 25 tons.

The Davis Avenue bridge carries 4,000 to 6,000 vehicles per day, the DPW said. The bridge serves three purposes — supporting traffic traveling on Davis Avenue, retaining water in the Davis Mill Pond and allowing water to flow into Indian Harbor.

According to the DPW, the bridge improvement project will:

Correct existing structural and functional deficiencies of the old bridge.

Improve traffic flow and safety at the bridge crossing.

Widen the driving lanes and shoulders of the bridge.

Add 5-foot shoulders that will make the bridge easier for bicyclists to use.

Brand-new pedestrian bridge.

Build new curbs and sidewalks near the bridge.

Improve run-off by putting in additional drainage.

Eliminate the bridge’s middle pier to reduce clogged debris and flooding.

Build a fish ladder to give migrating fish a detour route to swim upstream.

Put in new pavement and repaved markings on Davis Avenue near the bridge.

Hide utilities from public view.

Throughout the project, construction crews have been working six days a week, according to the town. The bridge reopening and project completion is dependent on weather and any unforeseen complications, DPW said.

Construction plans were prepared by Alfred Benesch & Company of Glastonbury. The contractor is A. Vitti Excavators of Stamford. Town of Greenwich DPW Senior Civil Engineer Jason Kaufman is the project manager.