Vehicles move along the I-84 East corridor into East Hartford. A shortage of engineers and other positions at the Department of Transportation has caused backlogs in transit infrastructure work. Donato Davis / CT Mirror

A shortage of engineers is complicating the state Department of Transportation’s efforts to upgrade and repair Connecticut’s roads and bridges, officials told the CT Mirror.

Although officials gave varying estimates as to how many jobs need to be filled in the department in coming years — from 10% to more than 40% of the ideal workforce — they agreed that hiring is a top priority.

“We did lose a large number of senior engineers, senior maintainers,” DOT Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto said at a press conference last month. “The reduction in staffing has caused some projects to slow down, so it caused us to prioritize projects. What hasn’t happened is it hasn’t led to any reduction in inspection and repairs.” 

“We are only about 200 engineers short right now out of around 1,200 to 1,300 that we’re supposed to have,” he continued. “We’re doing better, but we still need a lot more. The problem for us here in Connecticut is we don’t graduate enough engineers in this state. So, the past couple years … we started to look outside Connecticut where we can attract people to move to Connecticut to work for the DOT.”  

Connecticut colleges had only 191 civil engineering graduates in 2020 and 2021, state data show. The major with the most graduates was psychology. The University of Connecticut’s 2022 Undergraduate Student Outcome report shows that the top five employers for UConn engineering graduates last year were private corporations: General Dynamics Electric Boat, Pratt & Whitney, Travelers, Cigna and Lockheed Martin. 

Eucalitto said that given the circumstances, the DOT has been trying to recruit new engineers from outside the state and work with corporations to make up for the 400-500 total vacancies created during the mass retirements of 2022 and for the retirements to come in the future. 

Travis Woodward, supervising engineer at the DOT and president of CSEA SEIU Local 2001, a union that represents 25,000 active and retired public employees, said current hiring practices at the Department of Administrative Services (the agency in charge of hiring state employees) are “archaic” and are not efficient enough to meet the workforce demands of the DOT.

“DAS continues to take anywhere from seven to 13 months to hire somebody. They’ve gotten that down; they pulled it down to couple months or half a year, but that’s still way too much when our competition is the private sector,” Woodward said.

“If you were to look at our entry level positions … it has the wrong salary range built in because of DAS’s archaic hiring regulations.”

Eucalitto said more retirements are on the way and the work to fill vacancies within the department will continue.

“We have about 900 retirements over the next three years coming up. Even though we had a huge retirement surge, we have a lot more retirements coming … even if we fill every position today, we still need to be recruiting for the next three to four years,” Eucalitto said.

But though the DOT is having problems hiring new employees, and with more retirements on the way, Woodward said that the DOT would need to hire approximately 500 new employees to reduce the department’s dependence on private companies. He also admitted that the gap between the supply and demand for engineers will pose some challenges, but he is confident that the department will be able to bridge this gap.

“I think it’s possible, and I think that this administration, especially our current commissioner and our current legislature, have done more for DOT and hiring than at least the previous 20 years of administrations,” Woodward said. “They’re making the right actions, but more needs to be done, and we need to clear out those hurdles to hiring.”

Josh Morgan, a spokesperson at the DOT, and Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, a co-chair of the state Transportation Committee, shared Woodward’s optimism in the state’s hiring abilities, despite the circumstances.

“I know that they’re struggling to recruit new engineers into the department. That’s not just a Connecticut DOT issue, though, that’s a national issue,” Lemar said. “There’s a series of jobs that are important. We lost a lot of experience with a wave of retirements that happened in state service, and it’s going to take a while to fill in those gaps. But I have confidence in Commissioner Eucalitto that they’re aggressively out there recruiting new people into those positions.”

“We are working statewide with the DAS to streamline the hiring process to try to make it quicker for people to apply and hear back,” Morgan said.

Repairing and upgrading the nation’s infrastructure has been a top priority of the Biden administration, but according to a 2022 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Connecticut’s infrastructure has been given an overall grade of C; with bridges graded at a C, and roads graded at a D-.  

Lemar also said that despite the issues the department has been facing, maintenance of roads and bridges in the state has continued, and their conditions have improved since the release of the ASCE report. 

“What you’ve seen in those two grades is an improvement over the last number of years,” Lemar said. “We’re investing the federal dollars that we receive and our state bonding dollars to addressing some of the backlog of deteriorated roads and bridges that we have across the state. I feel confident with the administration that we’ve got at the DOT right now.

“I think we’re all laser-focused on drawing down every available federal dollar to address this backlog, to make sure our roads and bridges are safe and traversable and up to modern standards,” he added. “You’d hate to be in a position where you’re declining dollars because you don’t have the capacity to do the work. We’re not at that stage yet. But I think we risk that if we can’t get more folks into state service.”

Reports by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics in 2020 rated 67% of the state’s roads in acceptable condition (second-worst in New England and seventh-worst nationwide). Another report by the Federal Highway Administration states that out of the more than 4,000 bridges within the state, 231 of them are in poor condition — the majority of which are in Fairfield County.  

But the Department of Transportation does not intend to change the state’s bridge inspection program.

In an email, Morgan wrote, “We are proud of our bridge repair and rehabilitation program and the significant progress we have made … As part of our asset management strategy, we continually inspect, identify, and address deficient elements of our infrastructure.

“Over the last 10 years, we’ve cut the number of Connecticut bridges rated poor in half — from 10% to 5%. A poor rating is the result of one of the elements inspected is rated in poor or worse condition. A bridge in poor condition does not mean it is unsafe, it means that it requires rehabilitation. Today, of the 4,410 bridges measuring more than 20 feet in length in Connecticut, 96% are rated fair or better.” 

Morgan also cited the Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report released in April 2023, a report that “rates state highway systems on cost versus quality.” According to the report, Connecticut is ranked fifth in the nation in terms of overall highway and road conditions and within the top 20 for most other categories.  

Lemar said the $5 billion received through the bipartisan infrastructure bill will be spent on a number of proposals, including improvements to the Gold Star Bridge in New London, over five years.

Donato Davis is CT Mirror's 2023 Emma Bowen Summer Intern. He is a rising junior at the University of Connecticut. Before coming to CT Mirror he participated in a summer sports writing internship with BVM Sports, an online sports magazine based in Wisconsin where he interviewed and wrote articles about local athletes, teams, and coaches within Connecticut. He is also a news reporter at UCTV, UCONN's television news broadcast station.