Keith M. Phaneuf
Municipalities say the stalemate between Gov. Ned Lamont and legislators over long-term transportation funding is about to create an immediate crisis: With $30 million in promised local aid months overdue, fall tree trimming and winter snow removal are at risk.
Lamont is delaying action on a bond package, saying he needs to know if lawmakers will provide new revenue for transportation or whether more of the state’s credit capacity will be needed to shore up the faltering special transportation fund.
If he releases the funds, the governor loses leverage that he hopes will help win passage of a 10-year transportation plan he intends to release in coming weeks. But the cities and towns say they cannot afford the delay.
“This is more than just politics,” said Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “It’s getting to be a public safety issue.”
Cities and towns rely heavily on the state’s Town Aid Road [TAR] grant to pay for summer road repaving work, fall tree clearing, and winter snow removal. The state borrows the $60 million annually, giving towns half in July and half in January.
But the $30 million due to towns in July didn’t go out because Lamont and legislators haven’t agreed yet on a bond package — a schedule of projects and programs to be paid for with borrowing rather than with cash from the state’s operating budget.
Lamont says he won’t agree on a bond package until legislators settle on a long-term transportation rebuilding program, which also would rely heavily on state borrowing.
When the first round of state aid failed to materialize, many communities paid for summer paving work by raiding local funds set aside for winter snow removal — with the hope of replenishing those funds once the state TAR grant was released.Now fall tree-clearing season has arrived, and towns again are tapping their snow removal accounts — or the emergency reserves they’re supposed to be building against the next recession.
And no one knows how soon the first snowfall of the season will be, said Elizabeth Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns.
“We’re hearing a lot of concerns from small towns,” she said. “They’re going to be in a real difficult situation come any type of snowstorm or other weather incident.”
DeLong said no community would willingly cut corners on winter snow removal.
But absent state aid, cities and towns must either draw down their reserves or — in extreme cases — seek an emergency property tax hike.
The latter isn’t likely, municipal advocates say, for political reasons.
And many communities have limited reserves and are hesitant to drain them while economists warn of a national recession by late 2020 or early 2021.
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who co-chairs the legislature’s Appropriations Committee and also is her town’s first selectwoman, has asked Lamont to compromise. full two-year bond package involves billions of dollars in potential borrowing, but Osten said legislators and Lamont could act now on financing just for municipal aid programs.This could include the $60 million due each year for the Town Aid Road grant, another $30 million per year for the Local Capital Improvement Program, and a final municipal projects grant that distributes $60 million annually.
“Municipal aid and bonding wasn’t always the way it is now,” Osten said.
Over the past decade, as legislators and governors dealt with lean fiscal years, more grants were removed from the budget and put on the state’s credit card.
“Not getting a bond package done has put a lot of municipal projects in limbo,” Osten said, adding this not only has threatened winter snow removal efforts, but stalled many local economic development programs and weakened Connecticut’s construction industry.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, has made a similar pitch for compromise.
“Towns and cities operate on a shoestring [budget] on a regular basis,” she said. “If we’re not going to give them something, we should tell them” in the spring when the state budget is adopted.
“They are not a victim of the dysfunction of Hartford,” she added.
Lamont says the GOP’s alternative to tolls, which would divert bonding dollars in future years from school construction and other programs into transportation work, would worsen the state’s heavy debt burden and forfeit hundreds of millions of dollars in potential annual toll receipts from out-of-state motorists.
When asked about the potential for action soon on a bond bill aimed just at municipal grants, Lamont spokesman Rob Blanchard was diplomatic but noncommittal.
“We understand and are sensitive to the concerns raised by municipalities and we continue to work toward an agreement on the final bond bill as expeditiously as possible,” he said. “When we reach an agreement, the municipalities will stand to benefit directly via a series of programs funded in the capital budget—just as the state should benefit from long overdue transportation improvements.”
Lyle Wray, who is both executive director for the Capitol Region Council of Governments and a longtime transportation advocate, said he understands Lamont’s quandary.
“We need to get our economic growth accelerated and it’s wobbly as hell,” Wray said. “A skilled workforce and transportation are critical drivers for economic growth.”
But Wray also said the administration might have been better served by linking transportation to some issue other than bonding and municipal aid.
For example, Wray added, Lamont could have insisted last spring that legislators adopt tolls before he would agree to the minimum wage hike and paid family and medical leave program that the Democratic majority favored.
Can Connecticut allow a transportation debate that has been delayed for nearly two decades to remain unresolved? he added.
“I understand the needs of the towns are being held up as part of the ongoing negotiation,” Aresimowicz said. “We want our towns to get all of the money they are supposed to get. But our transportation problems are so severe that it’s going to take drastic steps to get us going in the right direction. At some point you have to hold people accountable and the leverage you have is the money that goes to their municipalities.”
ETA on Lamont transportation plan is TBD
Gov. Ned Lamont dropped a few more breadcrumbs Wednesday on the path he hopes lawmakers are following to his eventual presentation of CT 2030, a plan for spending about $20 billion over the next decade to speed Metro-North trains and ease highway congestion.
The administration gave the Wall Street Journal, a favorite of many commuters who ride the rails, these tidbits: $5 billion will be spent on Metro-North to buy 100 rail cars, replace three century-old bridges and add express service on the Waterbury line.
The new talking point aimed at Fairfield County lawmakers: CT 2030 could produce the first improvements in Metro-North commuter times in a generation, perhaps saving as much as 15 minutes on the ride from New Haven into Grand Central.
Since early September, when his chief of staff shared a basic outline of Lamont’s transportation reboot, the governor has dropped a detail here and a detail there, all while his staff continue to hone the plan and crunch the numbers on cost and financing.
So, when will the final reveal come?
“We’re talking to the legislative leadership every day,” Lamont told reporters. “I just don’t want to get ahead of myself. I want to make sure when we roll this out we have as many people on board as we can.”
Lamont said the administration is making changes based on feedback from lawmakers. “We briefed everybody, and we’re going to refine that proposal yet again,” Lamont said.Lamont is visiting New York City on Thursday to meet with the governors of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to talk about a common regulatory structure for vaping and, if it is ever legalized in Connecticut, recreational marijuana.
Then attention will return to transportation.
The administration fumbled its initial proposal in February, publishing it in an op-ed that outlined a transportation revenue plan built on a comprehensive system of highway tolls on the Merritt Parkway and Interstates 84, 91 and 95. It fell flat.
Democratic legislative leaders refused to schedule a vote on his plan in either chamber.
The new strategy is to make the case for restoring Connecticut’s highways, bridges and rail system to a state of good repair, then talk about the new revenue necessary to make the plan a reality. Lamont now talks about “user fees,” which most likely will include tolls on a dozen bridges.
Even without transportation enhancements, the state’s special transportation fund is approaching insolvency. The state spends $1.6 billion annually on transportation expenses, which includes $680 million on transportation debt service, $366 million on bus and rail, $290 million on the Department of Transportation and $65.4 million on the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Taxes on motor fuels and oil companies raise $806 million a year for the special transportation fund, about half of what is necessary. The rest comes from sales taxes, motor vehicle receipts and fees.On Sept. 20, offices from the Build America Bureau of the U.S. Department of Transportation briefed leaders on what they say is a flexible menu of available low-cost credit — less than 2% for highway loans that come with a repayment period of 35 years.
“We have to get in line for it,” Lamont said Wednesday. “They don’t just automatically give it to us.”
Lamont said the state also must identify a revenue stream to pay for it.
East Lyme police building architect explains $5.8 million estimate at selectmen’s meeting
East Lyme — Amid escalating concerns that costs for renovations of the proposed public safety building would soar much higher than what the town has approved, the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday heard an explanation from the project architect, who said he was confident the facility would come in on budget and within the desired scope promised to residents.
Though not originally included on the meeting agenda, principal architect William Silver of Silver/Petrucelli + Associates explained to the board that the “needs assessment” for the building, as well as the first “conceptual design,” presented to the Public Safety Building Vision Committee on Sept. 26 was just the first phase of a multiple-step process between architects and the committee — a "planning tool" to begin the process.
He added that the $5.8 million price estimate was presented to “show the big picture” of the project, “to give you a sense of what the total responsibilities in the long run are going to be involved.”
“We knew right from the start, and it was clearly communicated in the Request for Proposal, that the budget was $1.7 million and we are going to meet $1.7 million,” Silver said. “Part of an (architect and engineer’s) responsibility in these studies is not just to give you the limited information of what there is to meet your budget, but to show you the big picture.”
Voters in a February referendum approved spending up to $5 million to purchase and renovate the former 30,000-square-foot Honeywell office building at 277 West Main St. into a consolidated space that would host a new police facility, as well as the town’s dispatch center, fire marshal’s office and emergency operations center.
Having closed on the building in May for about $2.77 million, the town is left with an approximately $2.23 million budget for repurposing the structure as a public safety facility — $1.7 million of which will be used exclusively for renovations, while the remaining $500,000 will be used to install communications wiring in the building, First Selectman Mark Nickerson said.
But after Silver/Petrucelli + Associates said renovations could cost as much as $5.8 million at the Sept. 26 Public Safety Building Vision Committee meeting — $3.6 million more than provided by the approved bond issue — many residents, as well as some town officials, have expressed worry that the project will not come in on budget, or if it did, whether it would include the necessary elements needed for a quality police building.
Silver noted Wednesday that last month’s preliminary presentation was not initially supposed to be made as part of a public meeting and that such presentations typically aren’t made public so early in the process.
“We had not even yet met with the committee and were surprised that it was a public forum,” Silver said. “It was our error for showing the big picture so prematurely to a process that normally works with a committee through multiple meetings. I can almost assure that we would have 10 meetings of preliminary planning where the committee and the architects and engineers all work together to scope the project to meet the problematic needs but to also meet the budget.”
“We were surprised and probably should have guarded our remarks,” Silver said. “... Our goal is to get the police department, the EOC, the fire marshal, dispatch, all under one roof in an adequate space that will serve them for the next 20 years plus and we are confident that we are doing that.”
In response to Silver’s comments, Nickerson said he believed that some Vision Committee members may not have understood that this first presentation was a typical beginning point of the planning process.
Selectman and Vision Committee Chair Paul Dagle reiterated Silver’s points, saying the presentation and the initial estimates were “the first in many, many steps.”
“We are only at the concept phase right now,” Dagle said, before explaining that in the time since, the vision committee already has identified some areas to scale back or reconfigure, stating that police services will be designed to only inhabit the first floor of the building, instead of being spread on two floors, thereby saving money.
“We are very confident that we will achieve a design that will serve the purpose and functionality for the organizations we will put in this public safety building, and we will be able to do it at budget,” Dagle said. “We have a ways to go. There will be give and takes.”
Dagle also mentioned that he, other committee members and architects met Monday evening to further clarify and discuss plans. Nickerson said to The Day on Tuesday the meeting was held privately.
Dagle and Nickerson added that as part of the architectural design phase, the committee will request designs for the sally port and holding cell area of the building and also will obtain a “hard construction” cost for those proposed areas when the vision committee goes out to bid for a contractor.
Dagle said that with those hard “quantifiable numbers,” the vision committee and townspeople then will make a conscious decision on whether to build that part of the project into the police building now, or wait until a later time.
According to Silver’s preliminary plans, the sally port and holding cell area was estimated to cost a little over $1 million.
Selectman Rose Ann Hardy said she still worried the project would resemble the high school expansion project completed about two decades ago, which she said “was underbid to begin with” and did not include everything it needed when being built.
“I don’t want that to happen to this building,” she said. “I think the public has a right to know what they are not going to get for the money that was budgeted, what’s being eliminated, so that we aren’t nickeled and dimed to death for the next 20 years trying to make up for what we didn’t do in the first place.”
Rocky Hill denies $10M hotel proposal
Rocky Hill’s Planning and Zoning Commission on Wednesday unanimously denied a Westbrook developer’s proposal to build a $10 million hotel and restaurant on Silas Deane Highway.
Real estate developer Ron Lyman in recent months asked the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission for a special permit and site plan approval to allow construction of a four-story, 126-room hotel and 5,660-square-foot restaurant on the east side of Silas Deane Highway adjacent to the Interstate 91 northbound on-ramp at interchange 24.
Lyman had received commitments from Woodsprings Suites Hotel and LongHorn Steakhouse restaurant to occupy the two proposed buildings.
But residents at public hearings in recent weeks pushed back against the proposed extended-stay hotel, arguing the development would bring more crime and disruption to the area, meeting minutes show.
It was not immediately clear Thursday morning why the planning commission voted 4-0 against the hotel project. Lyman could not be reached for comment.
According to plans, the hotel was expected to generate revenues of about $2.4 million a year, employing 11 full-time workers and other part-time staffers.
The LongHorn Steakhouse, meantime, was to employ up to 70 workers, and would have cost about $855,000 to build.
Farmington’s Westfarms mall installing $9.2M solar array
Farmington’s Westfarms mall said it’s investing $9.2 million in a rooftop solar panel array.
Construction on the project has already begun.
In the project’s first phase, panels will be installed on top of new parking canopies in the parking lot. A second phase includes installation of panels on the shopping center’s roof.
Westfarms, managed by the Taubman Co., said the project will benefit from the state’s Zero Emission Renewable Energy Credit (ZREC) program, under which utilities are required to enter long-term contracts to purchase energy from solar systems up to a certain size.
Westfarms expects the 2.7-megawatt system to begin operating early next year. It has a projected annual output of 3.2 million kilowatt hours, approximately enough to power 353 homes.
A food hall, apartments and retail. Inside the $100M plan to turn Hartford’s Pratt Street into a ‘real live urban neighborhood’
Kenneth R. Gosselin
Downtown Hartford’s historic Pratt Street — the brick-paved corridor between Trumbull and Main streets — may get the shot of vibrancy that has eluded it for decades, as the first phase of a massive $100 million redevelopment starts to take shape. Just four months after the project was announced, the development partners Thursday secured approval for $12 million in state taxpayer-backed loans from the Capital Region Development Authority for the first phase of the project. The $29.8 million phase includes the conversion of two buildings — 99 Pratt St. and 196 Trumbull St. — into 129 apartments over storefront retail space. While the funding still must be approved by the State Bond Commission, the developers are pushing ahead with their plans. Work had already begun in 196 Trumbull St., with rentals expected in the first three months of next year; and the conversion of 99 Pratt St. could get underway in January, with a 12-month construction timetable. The linchpin of the project is injecting vibrancy into the street, perhaps with a food hall patterned after New York City’s Chelsea Market.
“The idea is to really make Pratt Street a 24/7 social, entertainment place, a destination spot where people can go and meet and socialize and really have a good time,” William Crosskey, president and chief executive of Crosskey Architects in Hartford, the project’s architect, said, during a tour this week of the buildings involved in the first phase.
“A real live urban neighborhood,” Martin J. Kenny, one of the developers on the tour, added. The $100 million vision targets the south side of Pratt Street and a later phase would add four more buildings with the potential for up to another 80 apartments. The project also extends well beyond Pratt Street to The Lofts at Temple, at Pratt and Main streets, where additional apartments would be added and student housing behind it would be converted to 84 micro units and 12 townhomes.
In addition, the developers also would renovate the long-closed and deteriorating One Talcott Plaza garage, which includes a surface lot fronting on Main Street.
In addition, the developers also would renovate the long-closed and deteriorating One Talcott Plaza garage, which includes a surface lot fronting on Main Street.