March 14, 2018

CT Construction Digest Wednesday 14, 2018

Road closures expected as Danbury replaces Reservoir Street bridge

DANBURY — The city plans to replace the Reservoir Street bridge near the Bethel town line.
Construction is expected to begin around April 1 and last until the first week of July, according to Bethel’s Facebook page.
For the bulk of construction, travel will be limited to one lane and portable signs will be installed to control traffic. But halfway through the project, the city plans to close Reservoir Street completely in both directions for two weeks.
Bethel advised drivers to seek an alternate route during construction. The bridge crosses over the creek near the Bethel town line.

Tolls: A Question Of Where, How Much

The debate over the reintroduction of highway tolls in Connecticut will move to center stage Wednesday when the General Assembly’s transportation committee holds a hearing on four toll bills, including one recommended by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Given the cost of needed highway projects alone, tolls seem unavoidable, if not this year than next. I’m inclined to support them. But, as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details,” and there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered.
To Toll Or Not To Toll
Unlike some past proposals, all the bills leave the fundamental decision whether to implement tolls to the General Assembly. But, that's where the similarities end. Many other crucial questions remain.
Federal Approval
In some ways, the most important decision about tolling Connecticut's interstate highways will be made in Washington, not Hartford. Under federal law, tolls are prohibited on the interstate highway system, including most of Connecticut’s limited access highways. The Federal Highway Administration, however, can permit tolling in certain limited circumstances, including the reduction or mitigation of highway congestion.
If the legislature approves tolling, the state will then begin the detailed process of applying for federal approval, which is expected to take between 18 months and two years and generate a detailed tolling plan. DOT officials say that they are confident of securing that approval. They’d better be. Without federal approval tolling won't happen.
If Connecticut succeeds in winning federal approval, it will come with at least one condition. Under federal law the proceeds of tolls on interstate highways must generally be spent on interstate highways.
Where To Toll
The proposed legislation doesn't specify which limited access highways will be tolled. I-95 west of New Haven and I-84 from the New York border to Greater Hartford have both been the subject of federally funded tolling studies. But they are just the beginning of a list of highways that have been suggested for tolling. It includes I-91 from New Haven to the Massachusetts border, I-95 from New Haven to the Rhode Island border, I-395, I-84 from Hartford to the Massachusetts border, the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways and state routes 2, 3, 8 and 9.
The final decision about which roads will be tolled will probably depend on revenue potential, the state's final tolling strategy and the scope of the federal approval
The state will be required to spell out its reason for reintroducing highway tolls. Is it seeking to reduce highway congestion, raise revenues or both? The federal approval may turn on the answer to that question. Historically, the highway administration has favored tolling proposals aimed at relieving congestion rather than strictly raising revenue.Toll Charges And Rebates
The amount drivers will be charged for using the toll roads could vary depending on how the toll rates are structured. Drivers could be charged a flat rate at all times or one adjusted based on time of day or highway congestion as a way to reduce traffic at peak times.
The treatment of Connecticut residents will be another issue. Some people have proposed reduced rates or even rebates for Connecticut motorists. It’s unclear how those actions would impact projected revenues and whether they would raise new legal issues.
These questions about how much and who to charge could also be significant issues during the federal approval process.Physical Infrastructure
Where will the transponders and other physical infrastructure needed to collect tolls be located? What steps will be taken to prevent traffic from diverting to local roads to avoid paying tolls?
The four bills before the transportation committee take a variety of approaches to who answers these questions. That is one issue that the legislature will have to decide before it votes.
It now seems clear that the legislature will be asked to vote on tolls before many, if not most of these questions are answered. That is an issue all by itself.
Philip L. Smith of Bridgeport is a member of The Courant’s Voices board. He was an undersecretary of the state's Office of Policy and Management from 2003 to 2010 under Govs. John G. Rowland and M. Jodi Rell.

CCM backs plan to revitalize CT — despite risk to local aid

After unveiling a diverse and potentially painful array of recommendations to revitalize Connecticut, the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth challenged legislators and others to accept it en masse.
Connecticut’s cities and towns took that challenge to heart.
Despite a commission proposal that could jeopardize state aid in coming years, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities endorsed the full report, arguing it offers more long-term benefits for the state and its communities.
Recommendations that centered on new revenue-raising options for cities and towns and collective bargaining changes are vital reforms that outweigh another commission proposal calling for a dramatic reduction in the state budget, said CCM Executive Director Joe DeLong.
“Connecticut has long been the land of steady habits, but the precarious fiscal condition that still plagues the state budget demands that Connecticut change key core public policies — now,” DeLong said, adding the commission report echoes many of the recommendations CCM delivered to legislators just one year ago. “We can wait no longer for substantive change that will set the state on a sustainable economic path that will benefit hard-pressed residents and businesses.”
The package works when it holds together,” said one of the commission’s co-chairs, Jim Smith of Middlebury, chairman and former CEO of Webster Bank. Municipal leaders “must have been appreciative of that, even if some recommendations made them a bit uncomfortable.”
“We very much appreciate CCM’s understanding that the package needs to be treated as a whole and not dismembered in the General Assembly,” added the other co-chair, Robert Patricelli of Simsbury, a retired heath care executive.
The 14-member commission — which was established in statute last October as part of the new state budget — was given the unenviable task of navigating Connecticut through one of its worst fiscal crises in modern history.
While Connecticut economic recovery since the last recession has lagged the nation’s, surging retirement benefit costs tied to more than 70 years of inadequate contributions are projected to place unprecedented pressure on state finances for the next 15 years or longer.
One of the many areas of state spending feeling the squeeze as retirement benefit costs expand is aid to cities and towns. With that perspective, the commission issued many recommendations which CCM asserts will help communities manage their own budgets and programs as the state struggles with its own debts.Empowering municipal coalitions to add one-half of 1 percentage point to the sales tax rate to fund regional services and diversify local budgets that rely excessively on property taxes.
Allowing regional coalitions of municipalities to raise supplemental taxes for capital projects by special referendum.
Allowing communities, through regional councils of government, to charge fees on nonprofit colleges and hospitals, which currently are exempt from local property taxation.
Permitting towns to increase fees for use of the public rights of way, storm water fees, hotels, car rentals, restaurants and other services.
Urging the state to increase the grants it already provides to restore some of the funds communities lose because state property is exempt from local taxation.
The fiscal stability panel also proposed several changes to collective bargaining that earned praise from CCM, though the AFL-CIO and other labor groups called these an attack on working-class households. These include:
Allowing communities to use non-union labor on rehabilitation projects costing less than $1 million.
Providing communities with a single, neutral arbitrator for labor negotiations.
And exempting a city or town’s emergency budget reserve from being used to pay for labor contract settlements.
“They realize with a more competitive environment we can find ways to take care of issues,” DeLong said of the fiscal stability commission. “Sometimes we have to take the good with the bad, but the absolute worst we can do is nothing at all.”
“The bad” for cities and towns may be a commission recommendation that legislators cut about $1 billion per year from the state’s nearly $20 billion annual operating budget. CLICK TITLE TO CONTINUE

Chao: $1.56B in 2017-18 INFRA Grants Still Months Away

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told Congress March 6 that the Department of Transportation expects to award $1.56 billion in 2017 and 2018 INFRA grants "hopefully . . . by the beginning of June . . . the beginning of the summer."
The department has had the INFRA project applications in hand since it closed the grant requests Nov. 2, but Chao said it had to first handle the separate $500 million in 2017 TIGER grants.
Chao told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that while the department was notifying lawmakers this week about its selections for those TIGER grants – which can cover a wide range of projects across various travel modes – the same USDOT office that first processed those TIGER applications could now turn to the INFRA applications and start sorting through them.
"They have to do the TIGER grants first, and then they can turn to INFRA," she said.
Congress in its five-year Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act in 2015 created a new grant program within the Highway Trust Fund for highway and multimodal projects of regional and national significance, with an emphasis on those that aid economic vitality by improving the flow of goods in freight corridors.
The Obama administration had cast the program as "Fastlane" grants and awarded the initial round in 2016, then took applications for the 2017 round but did not award them before the new administration took office.
Under President Trump, the U.S. DOT decided to split the 2017 round, first awarding nearly $79 million of it to 10 small freight-related projects around the country, but holding back about $710 million for larger projects to pair with the 2018 grant round under a recast structure.
Now calling the program "Infrastructure For Rebuilding America" or INFRA, the USDOT said last June that it would award an estimated $1.56 billion in 2017 and 2018 competitive grants partly on the basis of how much the local or regional sponsors provide in funding in order to maximum the leverage of federal dollars.
It announced a notice of funding opportunity July 5 for the combined grant rounds, and took applications Aug. 1 through Nov. 2.
Chao's timeline means it will have been nearly a year from when the USDOT announced its INFRA plans until it awards the money, and that the grants will arrive too late for state DOTs and other sponsors to factor them into the start of the 2018 construction season this spring.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials recently cited the USDOT's lengthy grant process in a letter to Congress, urging appropriators to provide any additional infrastructure funds for fiscal 2018 through fast-disbursing highway and transit formula programs, since grants mean federal officials decide where to spend the money and only after considerable delays.