The head of the state’s largest construction industry association said on Thursday that he has serious doubts about the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s ability to handle the expected influx of billions of dollars of federal infrastructure funding for the state’s aging roads, bridges and trains.
Donald Schubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, told CT Examiner that every aspect of the construction business has the potential to explode when the trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding starts flowing next year – depending on the Department of Transportation’s ability to execute the program.
“There’s some momentum growing already and now it’s going to be up to the DOT to send some very strong signals to build confidence that they will be able to get this moving,” Schubert said. “They’re telling us they will be ready to go, but we haven’t seen anything to indicate that’s true.”
State Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Giulietti has estimated to industry groups that the agency will need to add more than 300 full-time employees and consultants to its staff of about 3,500 in order to handle the new funding, and as much as $1 billion in additional grants over the next five years from a separate federal grant program.
Schubert says the department’s hiring process and use of consultants is another sticking point for the construction industry.
“The way the department uses consultants needs to be completely reformed,” he said. “It takes them a year to finalize a contract with a consulting firm and they should be using consultants for design and final planning, not for inspections.”
Transportation officials say that 248 bridges and over 2,100 miles of highway across the state are in poor condition.
Potential major projects to be funded include improving and widening I-95 along portions of the shoreline, realigning I-84 and I-91 through Hartford to make the roadway less intrusive for the city, and making major repairs to bridges including the Gold Star Bridge on I-95 in New London and the East Haddam Swing Bridge, as well as replacing the 114-year-old Connecticut River Rail Bridge.
Schubert says these projects and countless smaller ones have been neglected or delayed due to departmental bureaucracy “that can’t get out of its own way.”
“They’ve been putting up lights and signs and patching bridges and all that for years but they’re not funding the real meat-and-potatoes projects,” he said. “We’re hoping that with this funding they will break this routine of just doing the little things.”
A spokesperson for the department told CT Examiner on Thursday that the agency has been preparing since August to handle the enormous influx of money, but would not respond directly to Schubert’s criticisms.
“The infrastructure bill will increase our traditional base funding programs, providing us with an opportunity to go beyond current planned projects and ensure we can put equity, safety, and sustainability at the forefront of our efforts,” said agency communications director Kafi Rouse in a statement. “The agency’s capital planning process will involve the public, the legislature, and the local Metropolitan Planning Organizations in determining which programs and projects advance. As with everything we do, the safety of Connecticut residents, workers, and commuters, is at the center of our efforts.”
Schubert’s association represents and lobbies for several hundred companies from virtually every sector of the construction industry, from large building contractors and highway and road specialists to dealers of asphalt, concrete and equipment.
He said the industry has been hobbled for more than a decade by the Department of Transportation’s unambitious project list and slow-moving approval and contracting process.
“Our companies are going everywhere but Connecticut to find work, he said. “We have members who are traveling to Boston and New York City every day because there is no steady work in Connecticut. As soon as somebody pulls the trigger on this funding, it’s going to resonate through the whole industry. The equipment dealers alone are going to go bonkers.”
Still, Schubert said he and his members are cautiously optimistic.
“We are raring to get to work in our state,” he said. “With just this one bill, we have the opportunity to go from an uncertain, lackluster program for the construction industry to having that certainty for ten years or maybe more. Congress did what it’s supposed to do – now all eyes are on DOT.”