Despite the game-changing billions of federal infrastructure-improvement dollars expected to arrive on the state Department of Transportation’s doorstep within months, the head of the agency’s technical-workers union is charging a lack of urgency by the administration to hire the hundreds of new workers it will take to put that money into action.
“We are way behind the eight-ball when it comes to hiring,” said Travis Woodward, a department of transportation engineer and president of the CSEA/SEIU Local 2001 union representing about 900 agency engineers, planners, property agents, bridge safety inspectors, materials technicians and IT specialists. “They should be panicking like the building’s on fire but they’re not.”
His remarks come in response to a CT Examiner report last week that Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner James Giulietti has told industry groups he will need to add more than 300 full-time employees and consultants to his staff of about 3,500 in order to handle an anticipated $5 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The funding is expected to spark an unprecedented wave of major projects, many that have been on the waiting list for years as the state’s archaic transportation system continued to deteriorate and create untold safety and traffic-efficiency problems.
Widening I-95 along the shoreline, realigning I-84 and I-91 through Hartford, improving rail service in the Waterbury area and repairing landmark bridges including the Gold Star Bridge on I-95 between Groton and New London and the East Haddam Swing Bridge are expected priorities.
Those projects are among more than 2,000 miles of highway and nearly 250 bridges in the state that are rated in poor condition and need extensive repair or replacement.
Woodward said that with the imminent retirement of an estimated 500 DOT workers due to upcoming changes in state pension rules, the agency actually needs about 800 new employees to make those projects a reality.
“The commissioner’s 300 only gets us up to where we should be right now with today’s workload,” he said, citing a decades-long sluggish hiring pace by the agency. “There’s a six-month to a year lead time to get an engineer off the street to fill a vacancy. The commissioner should be calling the Governor’s office and screaming that we need to hire these people today if we’re going to survive what’s going to happen to us next year.”
Giulietti’s spokesperson, Kafi Rouse, said in a statement to CT Examiner that department is “actively recruiting and gearing up.”
“In addition to succession planning and filling positions to keep pace with retirements now and in 2022, the DOT has been laser focused on the additional staffing needs and contractor readiness required to successfully implement the infrastructure bill,” she said. “Since the summer, we’ve mapped out and identified the key positions we will need to deliver a massive increase to our capital infrastructure program. As part of our work, we’ve also been reaching out to the contractor and consultant community to ensure they fully understand the work that is on the horizon.”
Gov. Ned Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Woodward said the impact of the “silver tsunami” of anticipated senior state-worker retirements, mainly prompted by changes in the annual cost-of-living adjustments to pensions that take effect next June, goes beyond just sheer numbers when it comes to being able to meet the demands that the federal program will bring.
“We need to download the knowledge of our people that are ready to retire now, and to do so you need these new people in the door now,” he said. “We needed them here last year.”
The agency should also rethink its habit of vigorous use of consultants as opposed to state employees, he said, an issue the union has raised for years.
Citing the department’s own annual cost-effectiveness reports, he said the practice has for the last several years wasted about $100 million annually.
“It’s 50 to 60-percent more expensive to hire these outside contractors versus state employees, even with the pensions and the benefits,” he said.
Using consultants, he said, may be attractive to this administration and previous ones because it creates the perception that they are controlling increases in the ranks of state employees.
“I think there’s a lot of political gain to be had by saying you shrunk the state workforce, even though you’re not really shrinking it,” he said. “You’re just moving the money from one pile to another and not calling a consultant a state employee. They’re really state employees just like we are but they don’t get a paycheck from the state — they get it from a third-party.”
State Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, co-chair of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, agrees.
“Connecticut would be much better off if we have the in-house staff necessary to complete the projects,” he said, declining to specify what he thinks are appropriate staffing levels. “We should not be relying on consultant-based work that we have to pay for at a much higher rate – over and over and over again.”
Warning of the costs, State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, ranking Republican of the Transportation Committee, takes the opposite view.
“I think we need to be mindful of the long-term costs associated with hiring new state employees — particularly fringe benefits,” he said. “The state still faces large deficits in the out-years and we have huge long-term debt, so hiring 800 new employees seems like a bit much and it negates a lot of the savings sought through attrition. I think there should be strong cooperation between the DOT and private contractors in order to complete these projects.”
Lemar said the legislature will hold a series of public hearings to flesh out exactly where the funds should be spent, starting in December with a presentation by the Departmet of Transportation.
“They’ll be getting the money, but we have to identify the priorities,” he said of the legislature. “We expect a very robust conversation.”
And since many projects’ price tag will require a 20-percent financial match from the state, those will need to go through the normal state budgeting process, as will any additions of staff, Lemar said.
Many of the big-ticket projects expected to get underway have been proposed and debated at the Capitol for years, he said, and finally getting them done would be nothing less than transformational for the state’s chronically bottlenecked transportation system.
“This is not just about roads and bridges,” he said, ticking off a list of “multi-modal” projects, many centering on rail, that are expected to be launched. “We are finally in a position to completely remake the way we go to work and enjoy our incredible state.”