His official title is Commissioner, but Mark Boughton might soon be better known as the state’s ambassador of infrastructure.
The former longtime mayor of Danbury who now heads the state tax department, Boughton was tapped by Gov. Ned Lamont last month to be his chief advisor in overseeing the upcoming influx of billions of federal dollars intended to reshape Connecticut’s deteriorating roads and bridges and improve its rail and internet service, among other projects.
In an interview with CT Examiner, Boughton said his main task is to build collaborations among state agencies, legislators, town officials, regional planning agencies, business groups and even neighboring states in deciding how to spend $5 billion in federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and a similar amount from other grant programs embedded in the bill.
“We want a big tent in allowing people to have input as to how these monies are executed and my job is to make sure everybody is communicating,” Boughton said. “I’m the guy that sets up the meetings and I’m the guy that’s out there explaining to the public why we’re doing what we’re doing. I was a mayor for 20 years so I speak their language.”
Spread over the next five years, the funding is expected to fuel completion of an array of major projects, many that have been in the design phase for years.
Widening I-95 along the shoreline, realigning I-84 and I-91 through Hartford, improving rail and internet service 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.
“What this money will do is help us bring those projects over the finish line,” Boughton said. “We’re looking for short-term wins, medium-term gains and long-term planning that will help drive what we do with this funding.”
Boughton heads a working group of more than a half-dozen key agency commissioners – principally from the state Department of Transportation and Department of Energy and Environmental Protection that will receive major portions of the funding – that meets regularly with Lamont.
“I’m there to remove roadblocks for the agency commissioners,” he said. “That’s to take the load off their shoulders so they can focus their team on helping us access this money.”
Boughton also is acting as liaison to an array of local government officials and groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and various regional Council of Government planning agencies.
A former Republican state representative who launched an unsuccessful run for governor in 2018, Boughton said he is strongly pushing a regional approach in order to maximize the chances of receiving funds from the federal bill, which in some cases will require towns to apply for competitive grants.
“We’re trying to discourage 169 applications from 169 towns,” he said. “If you put a grant in with five towns it’s much stronger than it would be with just one town out there doing its own thing. And if you’re not first you’re last so we need to make sure we move quickly on our grant applications and get them in front of the right people. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
That philosophy also extends to working with other states on such massive and expensive projects as improving rail service, he said, which could involve collaborating with New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
He noted that transportation department Commissioner Joseph Giulietti’s background as the head of Metro North Railroad and other rail organizations appropriately makes him the designated lead in such negotiations.
“He has rail connections that are amazing and could blow away anything I could ever think of doing,” Boughton said. “It’s really his domain and I’m just there to keep things moving forward.”
Giulietti has said that he will need to hire at least 300 new engineers in order to handle the agency’s increased workload – a task that some legislators and industry groups say is already behind schedule as the first wave of funding is expected to arrive within months.
Boughton said he and Giulietti are developing a plan to “be more agile in our hiring,” and accelerate the often-cumbersome and protracted state hiring system.
“We can’t skip steps in our process but maybe we can get a little quicker in how we do it,” Boughton said. “It would be a shame to lose out on grants just because we can’t execute the projects.”
The energy and environmental department also will need to hire an additional 60 workers to handle its portion of the projects, he said, especially the planned $100 million expansion of high-speed broadband internet that is lacking in many parts of the state.
“I look at access to broadband like a utility – like access to sewer and water,” Boughton said. “You have to have it. It’s a work necessity and it’s also an educational necessity.
For children, this is a very inexpensive way to open up the world to them. It’s something we badly need as a state to close the digital divide and now we’ve got money to do that.”
Boughton said he also is helping set up an office under the Governor that will employ established project-management techniques and protocols often used in the private sector to increase efficiency.
“I used that successfully in Danbury and we leveraged millions more dollars than we should have,” he said. “This is a much bigger scale but it’s a very similar process to make sure there is discussion and understanding about every step we take.”
Boughton predicts that the funding will not only transform the state’s infrastructure, but will stimulate economic growth that could lead to lower taxes.
“When we look at the sum of everything that’s been completed after five to seven years we’re going to say that it has made a huge difference in our economy, in issues of people being treated fairly and in issues of being able to move people around and move goods and services around,” he said. “That will make us more competitive in the nation and ultimately that will mean lower taxes. The more businesses that are successful, the more taxes they pay and the less you need to pay as an individual taxpayer.”