In his more than 40-year career, Jim Knell has lived through the construction industry's ups and downs -- from the lows during the gas crunch in the 1970s to the highs of the housing boom in the '90s into the new millennium. But the Meriden resident said the current recession has hammered the industry like no other time in history.

"This year has been very slow -- the worst ever, the slowest ever," he said.

Knell, wearing a reflective vest, was in Fairfield on Monday, standing in line to hear Vice President Joe Biden speak. He had wrapped up a day's work on the Merritt Parkway, which is undergoing a series of safety improvements thanks to funding from The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Knell works for Berlin-based ADF Industries, a woman-owned business responsible for installing guardrails on the 70-year-old parkway.

The general contractor, O&G Industries, Inc., was assigned the $67 million contract after submitting the lowest bid to Connecticut's Department of Transportation. Raymond R. Oneglia, vice chairman of the firm, said, "If it weren't for the funding, there'd be very little going on."

In the past year, O&G has already trimmed its workforce from 1,450 to 1,100. Oneglia, whose grandfather founded the company in 1923, said 60 to 70 additional jobs could have been lost if the Recovery Act funding didn't come through.

"These are bad times," said Michael Robinson, the business representative for the greater Bridgeport area of the Local 210's Carpenter Union. "The stimulus is good but we wish it could do more as far as carpenters are concerned."

The Local 210 is responsible for bridge repairs along the Merritt Parkway -- just one of the many facets to the project. Additional work along the 9-mile stretch of highway includes clearing brush to increase visibility and to rid the area of invasive species, as well as the widening of the roadway and repaving.

It is Americans like Knell and Robinson that Biden said the Recovery Act was intended to help. Standing before two earth-moving machines, with U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, by his side, Biden spoke colloquially with the crowd, using humor and anecdotal stories to drive home his message -- that the recovery act is laying the foundation for future prosperity in the nation.

"The road to recovery must literally be paved, and that's what's starting right here," the vice president said at the event, held in the commuter parking lot on Jefferson Street in Fairfield, adjacent to the Merritt Parkway.

"I got to ride down the most beautiful parkway in America over 10 miles per hour," Biden said to laughter, noting how the normally congested parkway was cleared for his passage.

"It is great to be here in Fairfield. What a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful part of the country," he added.

It is fitting that the federal government has put Americans to work on the Merritt Parkway, said Craig Miller, project superintendent for O&G, since it was the federal government that originally funded the construction of the parkway.

Indeed, Biden said it wasn't since Dwight Eisenhower's presidency that such a substantial funding mechanism for transportation has been brought forth. Nationally, nearly $50 billion is set aside for infrastructure improvements like those taking place on the Merritt Parkway. This is but a fraction of the total Recovery Act package -- $787 billion, which President Barack Obama signed into law in February, after it passed through Congress.

"We're going to rebuild this economy by rebuilding our infrastructure in this nation," Dodd said, noting that Connecticut can expect $1.6 billion in direct funding and another $1.3 billion in Medicaid assistance. One-third of that funding will directly benefit Fairfield County, Dodd said, to applause.

"These resources not only provide jobs, but they also help us clear out some of this traffic and provide transit flows we need to once again see our economy revitalized and move in the right direction," he said. "This project is going to make these roads safer, more environmentally friendly and easier to drive on and less congested."

"It's going to take time, we know, to restore what was lost," Dodd added.

Himes said, "While our economic recovery will not be easy or quick, the Recovery Act has been a major factor in helping us prevent more severe job losses and beginning to turn the economy around. The investments we're making now -- like improving the Merritt, new cancer research at Fairfield University and making publicly-owned buildings more energy efficient -- will pay dividends for decades to come."

Dodd made the crowd of about 400 two promises: to continue investing in infrastructure and provide oversight of the spending, and to rebuild prosperity so that it is "stronger than ever."

"This is our turn, our generation to get this right. Other generations have faced far more difficult problems than the ones we're confronting. This is not a Great Depression. This is not a World War. It is a serious time but our generation is up to this challenge and we're going to meet it because we have leaders like you and president Obama," Dodd said, glancing back at Biden, his long-time friend and former colleague in the Senate.

Taking the microphone, Biden proudly proclaimed that, as of Friday, Dodd was now cancer free. But Dodd still has his work cut out for him, as a handful of prominent Connecticut residents have launched campaigns to unseat the five-term senator. Himes, too, will be seeking reelection in November 2010.

Biden, whose visit came on the heels of a fund-raiser for Himes in Greenwich, said the event in Fairfield was not political. Still, he made it a point to praise both Dodd and Himes and thank Connecticut voters for "sending the right guys at the right time."

When Himes took office last November credit markets had all but frozen, foreclosures were rolling in and jobs were being lost at historically high rates. "In the face of this mounting disaster, we took action," Biden said.

While stocks have seen considerable gains in recent months, the unemployment rate -- a key indicator of economic conditions -- has climbed to 9.8 percent. That number is even higher in Connecticut, according to Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association. The unemployment rate for some building trades in the state is as high as 17 percent, he said.

"There is no better social program in American than a good paying job," Dodd said. "I don't have to tell any of you here today what a tough couple of years it has been."

Biden said, "My dad used to say, `You know honey, a job is a lot more than a pay check. It's about dignity. It's about dignity.' We're not only restoring this economy, we got to restore the dignity of millions of Americans."

While Fairfield resident Jeff Taylor has not lost his job, he has not been immune to the ill-effects plaguing the economy. His Stamford-based small business, Televersemedia, has experienced a definite slow down in recent months. The Taylor household has also had to cut back on spending.

Despite these difficult times, the Taylors were all smiles on Monday. Jeff and his wife, Tracey, took their children, Samantha, 14, and 10-year-old twins Alex and Josh, out of school early so the family could see the vice president of the United States.

"We figured it's probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Jeff Taylor said.

As for the subject matter at hand -- the Recovery Act and its impact on the economy -- Tracey Taylor said, "I think it's moving it forward."

She was not alone in that opinion.

Oneglia, commenting on the Recovery Act, said, "I think this is a big step in recognizing a very serious problem but the real dilemma is in reauthorizing the next six-year funding mechanism."

That mechanism -- SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users) -- expired on Sept. 30. Shubert said Connecticut, in particular, has a huge stake in seeing that the reauthorization is expedited.

"Connecticut is one of the states most dependent on federal money for construction," he said.

Last time the mechanism expired Shubert said it took nearly two years for the reauthorization to gain approval. A delay now could set back any progress being made, he noted, citing how private work is not nearly as prevalent as it was a few years ago.

Looking to the future and the possibility of restoring the prosperity the politicians spoke of, Oneglia said, "It depends on the funding, it really depends on the funding."