Stamford Advocate

Connecticu­t in desperate need of transporta­tion money, but spending it may be challengin­g

- By Erica E. Phillips CTMIRROR.ORG

The Infrastruc­ture Investment and Jobs Act includes $3.3 billion for Connecticu­t roads, $560 million for bridges and another $1.5 billion for transit.

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 Democratco­ntrolled 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 percent to 20 percent 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 Transporta­tion 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 percent 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.’”

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