Construction trades union members Martin Alvarenga (right) of Glastonbury and Steve Frantz of Essex rally outside the Legislative Office Building for more state spending on transportation. Keith M. Phaneuf /
Work at the old Q-Bridge foundation, prior to construction of a retaining wall that would support traffic from I-95 Southbound to I-91 Northbound. (Image courtesy of the State Department of Transportation)
Work at the old Q-Bridge foundation, prior to construction of a retaining wall that would support traffic from I-95 Southbound to I-91 Northbound. (Image courtesy of the State Department of Transportation)

An expected $5.4 billion infusion of federal funds for Connecticut roads, bridges and other infrastructure is placing renewed pressure on the state’s transportation department, which construction operators say has been slow to proceed on projects already in the pipeline.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, now before the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives after passing the Senate 69-30 earlier this month, includes $3.3 billion for Connecticut roads, $560 million for bridges and another $1.5 billion for transit, electric vehicle charging and other green infrastructure. That amounts to an increase of 17% to 20% over the current fiscal year in annual federal funding, according to a state DOT analysis.

And Connecticut needs it. The state’s transportation system is aging and overcrowded, in need of repairs and enhancements. For years, state spending has only managed to maintain the average condition of roads, bridges and rail lines — not improve it.

But getting federal money is one thing, and spending it on actual projects is another. The Department of Transportation expects to lose key employees in the coming months, and the state has had persistent problems funding even a sliver of its transportation needs — a situation that has sent some construction contractors to other states.

Gov. Ned Lamont called the federal legislation “an enormous down payment.” He said he estimates Connecticut will need to cover about 20% of the cost for the work.

Over the next five years, that would amount to roughly $1 billion in additional funding on top of standard repairs and maintenance. Lamont said the state will raise that money by issuing bonds and tapping new revenue from highway fees for commercial trucks.

The construction industry is wary of that plan.

More than $4 billion worth of work has already been approved — but not paid for. Budget shortfalls in recent years have prevented DOT from borrowing money to finance those projects. Analysts say that stalled bonding translates into thousands of construction and related jobs that could have been created — but were not.

Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association, said the status quo for transportation funding in Connecticut is tenuous as it is. Further uncertainty could lead the industry to pull back or seek out work in other states, he said.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Shubert said “Are we ready to maximize that opportunity, or will we let it languish?”

In an email, DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said, “Since increased federal dollars will require an increased state match, we are actively looking at what areas we’ll need to work with our agency partners and the Legislature [on] to ensure Connecticut will deliver on the increased federal program.”

Staffing challenges

If DOT overcomes those funding roadblocks, the department could face staffing challenges as it plans and designs the next slate of major infrastructure projects.

Within the next year, thousands of state government employees are expected to retire — a result of new rules that capped benefits for those who leave government service after June 30, 2022. Dubbed the “silver tsunami,” the exodus could leave DOT without key engineers and the institutional knowledge base needed to expeditiously produce project designs and get them out for bidding.

And replacing those workers won’t be easy. Commissioner Joseph Giulietti has expressed frustration at Connecticut’s drawn-out hiring process and the Office of Policy and Management’s proclivity to keeping jobs open to save money.

“We are currently looking closely at our capacity, retirements and the influx of new federal funding,” Nursick said. “We will continue to work closely with our [Office of Policy and Management] and [Department of Administrative Services] partners on staffing needs and our ability to bring new, diverse talent into the DOT, along with any consulting and contractor needs associated with new federal funding.”

Even if staffing problems persist, the federal money is spurring a range of actions — within and outside of the transportation department — to help the construction industry ramp up over the next several years.

Last week, Kelli-Marie Vallieres, executive director of Connecticut’s Office of Workforce Strategy, met with union labor leader Keith Brothers to begin laying out a strategy to recruit and train construction laborers for the extensive work ahead. Vallieres said she’s tapping funding in the American Rescue Plan Act targeted for specific workforce development initiatives, as well as $40 million from recent state legislation to fill in the gaps. She described it as “an unprecedented amount of funding.”

The challenge will be timing those efforts so there’s a “pipeline of people” recruited and trained to fill jobs as they become available — not too soon, and not too late. “It’s almost like a just-in-time process,” Vallieres said.

To be successful will require a systematic approach, she said. “It’s really important to start to collaborate and coordinate with the building trade unions, the Department of Transportation and other agencies to ensure we have a forward-thinking plan, knowing that demand is on the horizon,” she said.

In remarks outside the Construction and General Laborers Local Union hall in Hartford last week, Brothers said the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would create an estimated 1 million jobs in the building trades and help to develop the next generation of construction workers through union apprenticeship and training programs.

Lawmakers have also referred to the legislation as a “generational” investment. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the bill encompasses the nation’s biggest investment in physical assets since the New Deal.

“It’s not just ‘Infrastructure Week,’” Blumenthal said. “It’s going to be an ‘Infrastructure Decade.’”

Erica covers economic development for CT Mirror. Before moving to Connecticut to join the staff she worked in Los Angeles for public radio’s Marketplace and, before that, for the Wall Street Journal's L.A. bureau. She grew up in Minneapolis, MN, graduated from Haverford College and earned a master’s in journalism from the University of Southern California.