Gov. Ned Lamont and his choice for DOT commissioner, Garrett Eucalitto. Mark Pazniokas / CT Mirror

Gov. Ned Lamont’s choice for transportation commissioner told legislators Thursday his greatest challenge is finding new professionals to oversee the rebuild of Connecticut’s aging highways, bridges and rail lines.

While a key legislative panel unanimously endorsed the nomination of Garrett Eucalitto of New Haven, the state’s construction industry also threw its support behind the transportation policy veteran, arguing he is best suited to accelerate long-overdue capital projects.

Eucalitto “is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable transportation leaders that I know,” Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, testified before the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee. “He is likely one of the best in the country.”

The association, which represents most major businesses linked to transportation infrastructure work, has been critical of the Department of Transportation’s failure to launch more projects in recent years, despite a huge infusion of funding.

Shortly after winning reelection to a second term, Lamont tapped Eucalitto in November to succeed retiring DOT Commissioner James Giulietti.

But Shubert said Eucalitto, who has two decades of experience in transportation policy and administration — including serving as the DOT’s deputy commissioner since January 2020 — understands the challenges better than anyone else.

Between October 2017 and January 2020, Eucalitto was a transportation program director for the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices.

But for five years prior, he worked in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration in the Office of Policy and Management, the chief budget and policy planning agency. And for most of that time, Eucalitto, an undersecretary, oversaw financial issues tied to transportation.

In other words, according to Shubert, Eucalitto understands state fiscal policy as well as the inner workings of the DOT — and knows how to work with the legislature.

“Garrett is the most established administrator of transportation programs in Connecticut,” Shubert said. “He has worked earnestly to attain his status as a respected professional in his agency and across the country.”

Eucalitto said the department is using new outreach strategies to recruit engineers, planners and other professionals from out of state.

“We know we’ve tapped the talent we have here,” he told the committee. “We need to look outside of our boundaries.”

The DOT has slightly fewer than 3,000 employees now, fewer than it had 13 years ago when a legislative investigation concluded it was struggling to get projects done on time and under budget.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, urged Eucalitto on Thursday to pay close attention to the staffing issue, saying legislators would support requests for additional personnel.

Recalling a conversation with a former state transportation commissioner, Looney said the department has been “hollowed out from within” over the past two decades and can’t perform many core duties because of staffing issues.

The new commissioner added that the private industries that support Connecticut’s transportation capital program also need more skilled tradespeople.

“We need to build that pipeline for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Labor leaders also say the department needs more engineers and other professionals if it hopes to rebuild Connecticut’s aging infrastructure at a faster pace.

Despite a huge increase in sales tax receipts dedicated to the state budget’s Special Transportation Fund since 2015, borrowing to support capital projects during Lamont’s first term was largely unchanged from the previous four years. 

Connecticut borrowed an average of $744 million per year between 2019 and 2022 to fix its transportation infrastructure. That’s just 2.6% more than the $725 million bonded annually between 2015 and 2018 under Malloy.

The Special Transportation Fund covers the debt payments on that borrowing as well as public transit program costs and DOT operating expenses.

Adding staff, getting more projects underway and accelerating the capital program will become even more crucial in the near future if Connecticut hopes to maximize increased transportation aid from Washington.

“You’re going to be in the middle of a storm,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, who co-chairs the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee, told Eucalitto.

The much-touted $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure initiative passed in late 2021 does guarantee $5.4 billion for Connecticut over the next five years for highway, bridge, transit and other projects.

But states also can apply for much more funding, specifically a share of a $12.5 billion Bridge Investment Program and a roughly $16 billion pool for major transportation projects that will provide significant economic impacts.

And Duff said Connecticut is going to want to maximize its share of federal funding, adding that Eucalitto is “an excellent nominee” to lead the transportation department.

Eucalitto’s nomination now heads to the state Senate for final consideration.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.