Gov. Ned Lamont, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and local officials from across Connecticut gathered in Hartford on Friday to highlight the array of new infrastructure projects that are currently underway in the state and to discuss what other changes residents are likely to see in the next decade and beyond.
But amid the calls to boost Connecticut’s transportation and energy infrastructure, officials focused their discussions on one aspect of infrastructure growth: housing.
The gathering was billed as the first inaugural infrastructure summit, which was meant to lay out a roadmap about what investments Connecticut is likely to make between now and 2035.
The event, which was scheduled to coincide with the two-year anniversary of the passage of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, included mayors, first selectmen, state lawmakers, state agency leaders, economic development officials and private developers.
The summit featured several panels that provided an overview of the investments that were being made as a result of the federal infrastructure law, which authorized more than $1.2 trillion in infrastructure spending in the United States.
Connecticut’s Democratic leaders also used the summit as a victory lap, touting their political support for the infrastructure law and highlighting the state’s efforts to capture large portions of that federal spending.
To date, more than $6 billion in federal infrastructure spending has been announced for Connecticut. Mark Boughton, the state’s commissioner of the Department of Revenue and Services and Lamont’s senior advisor on infrastructure, said the state is focusing on winning additional competitive grants from federal agencies.
“We here in Connecticut take its implementation very seriously,” Boughton said.
Murphy, who is seeking his third term in the U.S. Senate, joked that there were so many infrastructure projects under construction that U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal wasn’t able to keep up.
“There are so many ribbon cuttings in Connecticut these days that Blumenthal can only make half of them,” Murphy quipped.
Even with all of the federal funding arriving in Connecticut and other states, Murphy argued that Congress needed to do even more to improve the country’s energy, water and transportation infrastructure.
Murphy noted that China was able to build a high-speed railway from Beijing to Shanghai, and he noted that the distance between those two cities is double the milage between Boston and Washington, D.C.
“This is not a moment for us to rest on our laurels,” Murphy said.
Many of the other speakers at the event, however, were focused on projects that are already in the works.
The panelists and attendees talked broadly about investing in water and sewer systems, upgrading the state’s internet connectivity, rebuilding bridges, reengineering highway exchanges, constructing new rail stations, installing electrical vehicle charging stations, speeding up the passenger rail between New Haven and New York and preparing the state for the future effects of climate change.
But the most prominent topic of discussion was housing — a vital but politically fraught issue at the moment.
Lamont, who is in his second term as governor, and many other speakers voiced the need to build new housing stock in Connecticut, a state with one of the lowest vacancy rates for apartments in the country.
Lamont and Daniel O’Keefe, the new nominee to become the commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, emphasized that housing is a vital piece of the state’s infrastructure. And they said it was a necessity for the state’s continued economic development, which is why they highlighted the millions of dollars in state funding that has gone towards new housing development.
“We are doing everything we can to build housing,” Lamont said.
Lamont, however, continued to show deference toward the Connecticut municipalities where local zoning ordinances have been used to block new housing developments in recent years.
“For the towns, we are following your lead,” Lamont said during one of the panels.
Housing advocates say those zoning laws — and the local opposition to multifamily housing developments — are likely the biggest impediment to Connecticut solving its housing crisis and boosting the number apartments and homes that are available to lower-income households.
Lamont recognized the pushback that developers have faced in many suburban municipalities when trying to build multifamily housing. He joked that in his hometown of Greenwich, he has seen yard signs suggesting that state lawmakers want to build the Empire State building on Greenwich Avenue.
The governor asked several of the panelists how they were able to plan and build more multifamily housing when faced with that type of resistance.
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor said she’s been able advance housing developments in her town by explaining to residents that it was necessary for the town’s growth and economic development.
But Cantor said that doesn’t mean that all of the housing developments were supported by the entire community. As an example, Cantor said, she was meeting with several town residents on Friday afternoon who are opposed to one of the new housing developments that are in the planning stages in West Hartford.
Jocelyn Ayer, the director of the Litchfield County Center for Housing Opportunity, also spoke to her experiences in trying to counter local resistance toward building new housing in Connecticut’s northwest corner.
“When we talk to towns about where they can locate new housing, they shrug,” Ayer said.
Ayer said she counters that response by pointing to old parking lots or vacant schools properties that could be developed into multifamily housing.
“We can turn those into community assets,” Ayer said.