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CT Construction Digest Wednesday August 25, 2021

Culvert Installation Continues on Cooper Street in Meriden VIDEO

CT needs federal transportation money, but spending it could be the challenge


An expected $5.4 billion infusion of federal funds for Connecticut roads, bridges and other infrastructure is placing renewed pressure on the state’s transportation department, which construction operators say has been slow to proceed on projects already in the pipeline.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, now before the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives after passing the Senate 69-30 earlier this month, includes $3.3 billion for Connecticut roads, $560 million for bridges and another $1.5 billion for transit, electric vehicle charging and other green infrastructure. That amounts to an increase of 17% to 20% over the current fiscal year in annual federal funding, according to a state DOT analysis.

And Connecticut needs it. The state’s transportation system is aging and overcrowded, in need of repairs and enhancements. For years, state spending has only managed to maintain the average condition of roads, bridges and rail lines — not improve it.

But getting federal money is one thing, and spending it on actual projects is another. The Department of Transportations expects to lose key employees in the coming months, and the state has had persistent problems funding even a sliver of its transportation needs — a situation that has sent some construction contractors to other states.

Gov. Ned Lamont called the federal legislation “an enormous down payment.” He said he estimates Connecticut will need to cover about 20% of the cost for the work.

Over the next five years, that would amount to roughly $1 billion in additional funding on top of standard repairs and maintenance. Lamont said the state will raise that money by issuing bonds and tapping new revenue from highway fees for commercial trucks.

The construction industry is wary of that plan.

More than $4 billion worth of work has already been approved — but not paid for. Budget shortfalls in recent years have prevented DOT from borrowing money to finance those projects. Analysts say that stalled bonding translates into thousands of construction and related jobs that could have been created — but were not.

Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association, said the status quo for transportation funding in Connecticut is tenuous as it is. Further uncertainty could lead the industry to pull back or seek out work in other states, he said.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Shubert said “Are we ready to maximize that opportunity, or will we let it languish?”

In an email, DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said, “Since increased federal dollars will require an increased state match, we are actively looking at what areas we’ll need to work with our agency partners and the Legislature [on] to ensure Connecticut will deliver on the increased federal program.”

Staffing challenges

If DOT overcomes those funding roadblocks, the department could face staffing challenges as it plans and designs the next slate of major infrastructure projects.

Within the next year, thousands of state government employees are expected to retire — a result of new rules that capped benefits for those who leave government service after June 30, 2022. Dubbed the “silver tsunami,” the exodus could leave DOT without key engineers and the institutional knowledge base needed to expeditiously produce project designs and get them out for bidding.

And replacing those workers won’t be easy. Commissioner Joseph Giulietti has expressed frustration at Connecticut’s drawn-out hiring process and the Office of Policy and Management’s proclivity to keeping jobs open to save money.

“We are currently looking closely at our capacity, retirements and the influx of new federal funding,” Nursick said. “We will continue to work closely with our [Office of Policy and Management] and [Department of Administrative Services] partners on staffing needs and our ability to bring new, diverse talent into the DOT, along with any consulting and contractor needs associated with new federal funding.”

Even if staffing problems persist, the federal money is spurring a range of actions — within and outside of the transportation department — to help the construction industry ramp up over the next several years.

Last week, Kelli-Marie Vallieres, executive director of Connecticut’s Office of Workforce Strategy, met with union labor leader Keith Brothers to begin laying out a strategy to recruit and train construction laborers for the extensive work ahead. Vallieres said she’s tapping funding in the American Rescue Plan Act targeted for specific workforce development initiatives, as well as $40 million from recent state legislation to fill in the gaps. She described it as “an unprecedented amount of funding.”

The challenge will be timing those efforts so there’s a “pipeline of people” recruited and trained to fill jobs as they become available — not too soon, and not too late. “It’s almost like a just-in-time process,” Vallieres said.

To be successful will require a systematic approach, she said. “It’s really important to start to collaborate and coordinate with the building trade unions, the Department of Transportation and other agencies to ensure we have a forward-thinking plan, knowing that demand is on the horizon,” she said.

In remarks outside the Construction and General Laborers Local Union hall in Hartford last week, Brothers said the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would create an estimated 1 million jobs in the building trades and help to develop the next generation of construction workers through union apprenticeship and training programs.

Lawmakers have also referred to the legislation as a “generational” investment. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the bill encompasses the nation’s biggest investment in physical assets since the New Deal.

“It’s not just ‘Infrastructure Week,’” Blumenthal said. “It’s going to be an ‘Infrastructure Decade.’”

House Passes $3.5 Trillion Budget Plan for Vast Expansion of Safety Net

Democratic leaders had to haggle their way to passage, committing to moderates that there would be a vote on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan by Sept. 27.

By Emily Cochrane

WASHINGTON — A divided House on Tuesday approved a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint that would pave the way for a vast expansion of social safety net and climate programs, as Democrats overcame sharp internal rifts to advance a critical piece of President Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda.

Approving the budget was a major step in Democrats’ drive to enact their top priorities — including huge investments in education, child care, health care, paid leave, and tax increases on wealthy people and corporations — over united Republican opposition. With a single vote on Tuesday, they laid the groundwork to move quickly on legislation that would accomplish those goals, setting a late September deadline for action on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package.

But it came only after leaders stamped out a revolt among conservative-leaning Democrats, who withheld their votes until they extracted a promise to vote on the infrastructure bill by Sept. 27. The breakthrough came after a pressure campaign by the White House, outside progressive groups and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who haggled and cajoled her way to unanimous Democratic support for a measure that had been stalled mere hours before.

The vote was 220 to 212 on party lines to approve the budget plan and allow future votes on both the infrastructure bill and a voting rights measure that the House passed soon after.

While the budget plan, which passed the Senate this month, does not have the force of law, it allows Democrats to move forward with a fast-track process known as reconciliation. That would enshrine the details of the blueprint in legislation that is shielded from a filibuster, allowing it to pass over the objections of Republicans.

It is expected to include universal preschool, paid family leave, federal support for child care and elder care, an expansion of Medicare and a broad effort to tackle climate change — all paid for through tax increases on high earners and companies.

“Today is a great day of pride for our country and for Democrats,” Ms. Pelosi declared on the House floor, after days of intensive talks with rank-and-file lawmakers. “Not only are we building the physical infrastructure of America, we are building the human infrastructure of America to enable many more people to participate in the success of our economy and the growth of our society.”

Speaking at the White House shortly after, Mr. Biden called Ms. Pelosi “masterful,” and lavished praise on the party’s leadership team and every congressional Democrat who ultimately supported the legislation.

“There were differences, strong points of view — they’re always welcome,” the president said. “What is important is that we came together to advance our agenda.”

But the herculean effort it took to do so only served to illustrate the difficult road ahead for Mr. Biden’s agenda on Capitol Hill, where Democrats’ small majorities and ideological divisions — as well as Republican opposition — have left the party with little room to maneuver.

The same differences between moderates and progressives that nearly derailed the plan this week promise to resurface in the weeks to come, as progressives push to make the reconciliation bill as far-reaching as possible and conservative-leaning Democrats work to limit its scope.

In a joint statement, Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and eight other moderates who had conditioned their votes for the budget on a deadline for action on infrastructure boasted that their group had succeeded in making sure that the bipartisan bill would “receive stand-alone consideration, fully de-linked, and on its own merits.”

But moments after the budget plan passed, a large group of liberal Democrats signaled that they still regarded the two measures as linked, raising the prospect of another standoff next month.

“As our members have made clear for three months, the two are integrally tied together, and we will only vote for the infrastructure bill after passing the reconciliation bill,” Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a statement.

In the evenly divided Senate, leaders need the votes of every Democrat and independent — plus Vice President Kamala Harris, who can break ties — to win passage of the reconciliation bill. In the House, the margin is only slightly more forgiving, allowing as few as three Democrats to defect if all Republicans are opposed, as expected.

The commitment to a Sept. 27 vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package added to a chaotic series of deadlines next month, when lawmakers will have only a few days in Washington to consider the infrastructure bill, prevent a lapse in government funding on Oct. 1, and steer the government away from the brink of a catastrophic debt default by raising the statutory limit on the nation’s borrowing. Party leaders have instructed committees to finish writing pieces of the reconciliation package by Sept. 15, though it is unclear whether they will be able to do so.

For now, the deal that Ms. Pelosi struck amounted to a precarious détente for Democrats that did nothing to resolve tensions between the moderate and liberal flanks or end the jockeying for political leverage.

The divisions began to flare this month, when nine centrist Democrats publicly announced that they would not advance the budget blueprint until the House passed the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure agreement, which omits many of the party’s highest priorities. Liberals called the compromise insufficient.

Ms. Pelosi had already said she would not move the infrastructure bill, which includes $550 billion in new funding for roads, bridges, water and climate resiliency projects, until the reconciliation bill passed.

That led to a stalemate this week, as Ms. Pelosi called the House back for a rare summer session.

In a series of phone calls and private meetings that stretched past midnight on Monday, Democratic leaders sought to persuade their colleagues to drop their insistence on passing the infrastructure bill first. They did so after securing a hard commitment, enshrined in legislation, that a vote would come on or before Sept. 27.

Ultimately, Ms. Pelosi also pledged that the House would vote only on a reconciliation package that could clear the Senate, sparing moderate lawmakers tough votes on provisions that could never become law.

Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida, who joined the Democratic holdouts on Monday, said the negotiation showed that centrists were willing to use their sway in the House.

“I think what it is a sign of is that moderates are serious about legislating in a responsible, transparent, inclusive way,” Ms. Murphy said before the vote, adding that she had personally sent a list of proposed changes to Democratic leaders to ensure moderate support.

But the episode was grueling for all involved. Asked early Tuesday whether the agreement was a win for Mr. Gottheimer, Ms. Pelosi responded with an incredulous “a win?”

A weary Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Rules Committee who convened his panel three times in two days as the talks dragged on, said he had had enough.

“I love you all, but I’m done, and we should move forward and not meet again for a while,” Mr. McGovern told lawmakers on the committee.

Yet despite the potentially messy path ahead, leading Democrats said they were confident that Mr. Biden’s agenda would emerge from Congress intact, even as moderate senators push to rein in the overall price tag.

“Both are going to pass, whatever the sequence,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat.

But progressive lawmakers remain concerned that if the reconciliation bill did not go first, provisions addressing climate change, paid family leave, health care and educational opportunity could fall by the wayside, lacking enough support to be enacted into law.

As pressure grows to close Hartford-Brainard Airport, sides in debate see different path to economic development for the century-old airfield.


HARTFORD — As political pressure to close Hartford-Brainard Airport mounts, those who want the century-old airfield to stay open say it could become a strong economic driver all its own, attracting new businesses that help revitalize the city.

All the talk of potential closure, however — the latest this month as the Hartford City Council passed a resolution urging the airport’s closure in favor of redevelopment — is hurting efforts to attract more companies tied to the aviation industry, said Lindsey Rutka, who operates the Hartford Jet Center at Brainard.

Rutka, who has a long-term lease to develop land around the runway, said he’s had multiple conversations with potential companies in recent years that could propel economic development sought by the city, just in a different way.

"This is where I started my dream as a kid to fly," says Air Force veteran Jesse Branche while working on an airplane at V.I.P. Avionics. Branche has been working at the airport for "over 30 years." (Mark Mirko/The Hartford Courant)

“It is very difficult with the city and everyone else, with the lack of support and pressuring to close the airport to have these multiple and thriving businesses willing to come,” Rutka said.

He declined to name the companies he’s been in discussion with, but options range from building on electrical system repair already at Brainard to upholstery and life-preserver manufacturing and even aviation insurance, Rutka said.

But those who are pushing to close the airport see a bigger, regional economic prize: 200 acres prime for redevelopment into housing, entertainment, retail and commercial space and a marina.

The Hartford City Council’s resolution urging a shutdown of Brainard is non-binding, but its members unanimously joined Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who first campaigned in 2015 on closing the airport, and state Sen. John W. Fonfara, D-Hartford, an outspoken advocate of closure.

Lindsey Rutka of Hartford Jet Center exits an aircraft hangar at Brainard Airport. The Hartford City Council has passed a non-binding resolution to decommission Brainard. Rutka argues that the airport is in the "heart" of Hartford and vital for the city. He says the uncertainty discourages investment of potential businesses. (Mark Mirko/The Hartford Courant)

Hartford City Councilman James Sanchez said it’s past time for a change in the use of the airfield.

“It is in the best interest of the city of Hartford and the Greater Hartford community, for environmentally-friendly, economic opportunities that will create hundreds, if not thousands of jobs, and we can enjoy our natural resource, which is the Connecticut River,” James Sanchez, the Hartford city councilman who sponsored the closure resolution, said.

Statistics from the Connecticut Airport Authority, which oversees operations at Brainard, paint a sobering picture of the decline in activity at the same airport where Charles Lindbergh launched his 1927 heroes tour after making his transatlantic flight.

Between 2010 and 2020, the annual number of take-off and landings declined by 30%, falling from 71,009 to 49,549, according to the CAA.

Sanchez said there also is now a move to build grassroots support for a closure, as a petition circulates in Hartford among neighborhood revitalization zone organizations, town committees and other community groups.

At the heart of the issue is that Brainard, operated by the quasi-public Connecticut Airport Authority, is largely exempt from local property taxes, barely bringing in $400,000 a year to city coffers. With redevelopment, property taxes could rise to $1.6 million annually, by some estimates, if the airport were in private hands.

Fonfara says the issue is bigger because redevelopment could attract more people — especially young people sought out by employers — to move to not only Hartford but surrounding towns.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration said it has a goal of doubling the population of Hartford and other cities in the state, and this would be a step in the right direction, Fonfara said. But it also would benefit the suburbs, he said.

People “will want to live in the region because people can point to this that this is something that you can do here, besides working 9-to-5, whether you are working at home or working at the office,” Fonfara said.

The air traffic control tower at Brainard Airport. (Cloe Poisson, Hartford Courant)

An even larger economic development opportunity for the area may rest in combining the airport property with the neighboring trash burning plant, which is being shut down in 2022, Fonfara said. The cost of environmental cleanup, however, could present a high hurdle in moving forward.

There are no formal plans, but some have been drawn up in the past two decades. Redevelopment would likely take years.

The future of this latest push to close Brainard — an issue debated ever since the 1950s, when a large runway at the airport was taken for redevelopment into what is now Brainard Road — is uncertain.

The CAA, which also oversees four other general aviation airports in the state and the much larger Bradley International Airport, said it does not intend to petition the Federal Aviation Administration to close the airport.

The CAA’s top executive said the CAA does not have millions of dollars it would likely cost, including repaying federal grants, conducting a study to determine if Brainard has outlived its usefulness and the likelihood of claims that would result from tenants who have leases at the airport.

“I certainly recognize the city’s concern here,” Dillon said. “It’s a large piece of property in the city of Hartford, and they are not deriving the tax revenue or the return that they think they should. So, I’m not going to dispute that feeling on their part.”

But Dillon said the CAA has studies that show Brainard does contribute economically to the region. One legislative study in 2016, pegged $43 million in statewide economic activity annually and more than 100 private sector jobs at the airport itself, and recommended future investment.

Critics point to Brainard’s annual operating losses of up to about $500,000, not counting capital contributions from the state that can vary widely year-to-year. But proponents of the airport say operating losses at small airports are not uncommon and are covered by revenue from the federal jet fuel tax.

To make the airport a stronger economic catalyst, the city would have to work with the CAA on reaching a resolution on tree removal and trimming to meet FAA requirements for taking off and landing as well as an extension of the runway.

“It’s got to be one or the other, right?” Dillon said. “Either you have to work with us to try to use this as an economic asset for company relocation and company retention, or, OK, let’s sit down and talk about what is going to be the future of Brainard Airport with the full understanding that the CAA is not in a position to close it.”

Dillon said one alternative could be the state condemning the property, but that, too, would be a costly undertaking.

Those who oppose Brainard say it is mostly the domain of recreational users. And while that is partly true — there are three flight schools based at the airport — Rutka said the generalization ignores other functions of the airport.

Brainard is a hub for public safety aircraft, including homeland security; it is integral to the transport of organ donations; and it is often a stop for performers at such venues as the Xfinity Theater, Rutka said.

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Marc Diwinsky, president of the 36-member Connecticut Flight Club, based at Brainard, said it isn’t practical to simply relocate the smaller single- and twin-engine airplanes to Bradley, just 15 miles away in Windsor Locks. For one, it is much more expensive.

“Bradley is too busy,” Diwinsky said. “There is just too much going on there.”

Diwinsky said Brainard also is just the right size for air transportation that may seem fanciful right now — air taxis, electric-powered airplanes, even flying cars. (A flying car is being developed and tested in Europe.)

Alternatives to more traditional modes of transportation may make it easier to commute longer distances by air in the future but still live in the Hartford area, Diwinsky said.

“Eventually, we are going to have flying cars, other ways of getting around, and airports are going to be a vital asset, Diwinsky said. “You’re not just going to take off in your yard.”