April 11, 2019

CT Construction Digest Thursday April 11, 2019

Lamont, GOP make clear — tolls are a fault line
Gov. Ned Lamont and Republicans crystallized two things Wednesday about the contentious issue of returning highway tolls to Connecticut after an absence of 35 years: Lamont cannot yet definitively answer important questions about the pricing, location and frequency of tolls — and it wouldn’t matter to the GOP, even if he could.
In back-to-back press conferences, the gulf between the governor and Republican minority could not have been greater, reinforcing that if Lamont succeeds in winning authorization to establish tolls on Route 15 and Interstates 84, 91 and 95, Republicans are resolved to brand them as the product of a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in the General Assembly.
Lamont and the Democratic co-chairs of the legislature’s Transportation Committee tried to reframe the issue Wednesday in terms of specific rush-hour commutes, assuming 4.4 cents a mile with discounts for state drivers: from New Haven to Hartford on 91, $1.72; from Stamford to New Haven on 95, $1.80; from Danbury to Waterbury on 84, $1.28.
The governor complained that Republicans, who have been assisted by a grass-roots campaign and conservative talk radio hosts in mobilizing public opinion against a proposal he rolled out in February, have created the impression he wants a tolling gantry at the end of every street.
“That’s false,” Lamont said. “That’s false advertising.”
Lamont seemed to sense he is losing the public argument, at least for the moment.
 He said he understands that the public is skeptical about government’s ability to responsibly managed tolling revenue, even the money would have to be used for highway infrastructure under federal law. But he said he is most concerned about the imposition of added costs on taxpayers, imagining a conversation with one.
“We have a middle class that has gotten slammed over a generation now. And they are paying a lot of money. And they feel like folks are falling behind. ‘C’mon, guv,  you know I know we have to fix the transportation. I know borrowing is not the way to do it. But I don’t know how I can afford to do that.’ And that is the one thing that rings with me. I have to sit down with folks, find a fair way to do this.”
Republicans countered that Lamont has only a broad outline for tolling, not a detailed plan to raise the $800 million that administration officials estimate could be raised annually through tolls.  They complained that he reflexively rejected their alternative  — increasing borrowing for transportation by $700 million a year by prioritizing transportation over many other areas.
“The Republicans in the legislature are not fooled by this proposal, and the problem now is neither is the public,” said Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford. “When you go out, the public is scared, they are concerned. They don’t know what level of taxation is going to occur now.”
Republicans excoriated Lamont and his legislative allies for pushing legislation that would cede authority to the state Department of Transportation to negotiate with the Federal Highway Administration the terms of establishing tolls on Route 15 and Interstates 84, 91 and 95.
“They are going to determine how much they are going to charge without one legislator weighing in,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven.
“How disrespectful could you be to the people of the state of Connecticut by saying, ‘Give us the authority and then we’ll tell you how much, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it,’” Fasano continued, his voice raised in anger. “That is simply outrageous.”
But Fasano and other Republicans conceded that even if the General Assembly had final say over a detailed tolling plan, the GOP was unlikely to engaged in a policy discussion about what is setting up as a major wedge issue in the 2020 elections for legislative seats.
“For us to retreat and even consider tolls, there really hasn’t been put anything on the table that makes that a viable option,” said Candelora, the deputy House minority leader.Donald J. Shubert, the president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, a trade group that promotes tolls as a means to stabilize financing for highway maintenance and modernization, said he is resigned to seeing tolls as an issue that will rise or fall strictly on Democratic votes.
“You have to work with the people you can work with until we get an indication they are willing to have a serious discussion,” Shubert said. “It’s a wedge issue.”
One of Lamont’s challenges is the chicken-and-egg nature of developing and winning approval for placing tolls on interstate highways constructed or maintained with federal highway dollars. Connecticut is one of the states permitted to experiment with tolls aimed at reducing congestion with variable pricing,  based on peak and an off-peak travel. The Federal Highway Administration, however, will not sign off on a detailed blueprint until the legislature approved enabling legislation.
Lamont also faces opposition from Democrats over his “debt diet,” a plan to sharply curtail borrowing.
Borrowing for transportation projects is repaid from the Special Transportation Fund, which is supported with fuel tax receipts that are stagnant. The fund is projected to be insolvent within the next decade.
The GOP solution is to increase borrowing for transportation projects by about $700 million per year. But to avoid overtaxing the STF, Republicans would pay off that extra debt from the state’s General Fund.
The problem with that, said Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, a Transportation Committee co-chair, is the General Fund can’t spare the room on its own credit card. Its borrowing is used to build schools, upgrade universities and wastewater treatment plants, preserve open space and farmland, and support economic development.
The Republican plan “shortchanges literally every aspect of state government,” he said. “It will crowd out every other bonding aspect.

Study: Natural gas pipelines leaking in Danbury, other cities
Bill Cummings
A new survey of natural gas pipelines in Danbury and other Connecticut cities shows methane is seeping into the air from underground pipes and could cause a disaster similar to the explosions last year that rocked three Massachusetts towns.
"It’s just a matter of rate and time and situation that determines if any of these leaks are going to be dangerous," said Nathan Phillips, a University of Boston professor who participated in the study conducted for the Connecticut Chapter of the Sierra Club.
The study found an average of 3.6 leaks per mile of underground gas lines in Danbury. The Hartford results showed an average of 4.3 leaks per mile and 2.6 leaks per mile in New London.
"The potential for what happened in the Merrimack Valley [in Massachusetts] exists in Connecticut," Phillips said. "It was the same kind of low pressure gas line that the study surveyed."
In September 2018, exploding underground gas lines in Massachusetts damaged as many as 40 homes and caused over 80 individual fires in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.
The cause of the explosions was blamed on human error related to nearby construction work.
Sierra Club members and others said it’s time to strengthen laws regarding leaks while transitioning from carbon-based energy sources to renewable energy.
"This report shows again that Connecticut has a real problem with gas leaking from pipes, and that we urgently need legislation that incentivizes gas companies to repair this ongoing hazard," said Leah Lopez Schmalz, chief program officer for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.
Mitch Gross, an Eversource spokesman, said the company has a "comprehensive” maintenance, inspection and management program that exceeds the requirements of federal and state regulators."We constantly monitor our system and are always evaluating new technologies, processes and industry best practices to provide superior customer service," Gross said.
Street by street
To conduct the study, researchers attached a methane detection device on vehicles and drove streets in each city. The detector can tell the difference between natural methane levels in the air and spikes caused by leaks.
"The leaks are invisible and are not being proactively monitored or repaired," said Samantha Dynowski, executive director of the Connecticut Chapter of the Sierra Club.
An earlier survey by the Sierra Club found similar leak frequency levels in Hartford.
Martha Klein, a past Sierra Club president, said the state has not improved leak regulation or detection since the club’s previous study.
"The reaction to our original study was pretty much to deny it," Klein said.
Gross said Eversource has invested millions of dollars to upgrade and replace pipelines.
Eversource does not serve Hartford but it does provide gas to Danbury and New London residents.
"We safely and reliably serve 74 of the state’s 169 towns and cities, continuing to invest tens of millions of dollars annually to upgrade the gas distribution system throughout our service area," Gross said.
Gross noted the company has replaced more than 175 miles of gas lines around the state since 2012, including lines in Danbury and New London.
The work included removing the cast iron and bare steel gas main and replacing it with safer plastic pipe, he said.
There are problems with the “methodology” used in the Sierra Club’s earlier study, said Michael Caron, a spokesman for the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.Caron said residents should not worry about a similar pipeline disaster in Connecticut, noting the state has a strict regulatory format in place and said a recent rate case for the state’s three gas providers committed the companies to a 25 year program to replace older lines with safer plastic ones.
“We have an excellent safety program with redundant mechanisms,” Caron said.
“What happened [in Massachusetts] is not going to happen here,” Caron said. “We have a good relationship in terms of cooperation with the companies. We inspect randomly, and we try to make sure they identify what they should.”
"Another reminder"
Debbie New, who represents a collation of over 20 groups worried about gas leaks in Massachusetts, said she’s concerned about the region’s aging gas pipeline infrastructure."The collapse of the gas system that is still affecting the Merrimack Valley could happen in any city or state with any gas company," New said.
"Our aging infrastructure is creating more gas leaks than utilities can fix — increasing emissions, affecting our health, killing trees, and costing us, the customers, money," New said.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin also expressed concern over leak rates highlighted by the report.
"This report is another reminder of how vital it is to make renewable energy development a national priority," Bronin said.
"At the local level, we’re pursuing a bold Climate Action Plan, but we need a broader effort to modernize the existing energy infrastructure," the mayor said.

Lamont Releases Estimated Toll Rates