Gov. Ned Lamont gets briefed before a groundbreaking in Middletown on a project designed long before passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law. At right, DOT Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

While the State Bond Commission approved $1.1 billion in new financing Friday to rebuild Connecticut’s aging infrastructure, Gov. Ned Lamont and his transportation commissioner pledged the administration was adding staff to ensure more projects can be launched each year.

“We’re continuing to make a dent in our vacancies and as we get more and more employees it’s going to be easier to get work out the door,” Department of Transportation Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto said, adding the DOT now has about 3,100 employees, roughly 200 more than it did in January.

“Look, we’re squeezed for engineers and such, but Garrett’s got us ahead of the curve,” said Lamont, who chairs the 10-member bond commission. “I think we’re just getting started.”

The financing unanimously endorsed Friday would back a wide variety of highway, bridge, and public transit facility improvements, including upgrades to New Haven Union Station.

Eucalitto said the work, which also includes a large resurfacing project on Interstate 95 between Groton and Rhode Island, would “grow the economy, increase safety and reliability, and improve quality of life.”

To make those changes, though, Connecticut not only must endorse the financing, it also must borrow the actual funds and get construction going. And bond commission approval doesn’t guarantee the state actually will borrow $1.1 billion — let alone spend it on transportation projects — any time soon.

In fact, Connecticut’s track record in this area has plenty of critics.

Connecticut pays for most transportation projects with two sources: Funds it borrows by issuing bonds on Wall Street, which are repaid largely with fuel and sales tax from the state budget’s Special Transportation Fund; and matching federal grants.

But while there is a normal lag of months or years between bond commission approval and the actual borrowing and expenditure of construction funds, Connecticut has developed a worsening backlog over time.

In October 2010, when the state first began tracking this problem, Connecticut had $2.25 billion in approved transportation financing that only existed on paper — meaning the funds hadn’t been borrowed yet. That backlogged financing represented almost four times the amount of transportation borrowing the state was doing yearly at that time, according to records from the treasurer’s office.

Thirteen years later the backlog approaches $5.4 billion, which represents more than six times the amount of actual funds the state intends to borrow this year for transportation work.

The Lamont administration announced last November it planned to dramatically boost actual transportation borrowing to $1 billion this fiscal year from $830 million last year. But recently it confirmed it had downgraded planned borrowing to $875 million, growth of just 5%.

Connecticut’s construction industry and trades, along with state employee unions, all say the DOT long has lacked sufficient engineering, planning and architectural staff for years to get more projects underway.

Administration officials note that many states have struggled to secure professional staff since the coronavirus pandemic struck in early 2020.

The stakes are huge, though, since Congress enacted a landmark, five-year transportation construction program in 2021 that is offering states up to $1.2 trillion. Federal matching grants in many cases will cover 80% to 90% of a project’s cost.

In other business Friday, the bond commission also approved:

  • $30 million in financing to support development of a new nursing program facility for the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Those funds will be matched with a $40 million donation from Elisabeth DeLuca, owner of the Subway restaurant chain. University officials say it represents the largest gift in UConn history.
  • About $105 million for affordable housing initiatives, first-time home-buyer assistance, and support for eastern Connecticut homeowners with crumbling foundation issues.

Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.

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.