Himes pushes for federal funding surge for roads, bridges
The deteriorated Saugatuck Bridge reflects the need for a well-funded transportation bill to tackle infrastructure needs nationwide, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., told a crowd Monday.
Himes said funding legislation will provide financing to repair the heavily traveled bridge over Saugatuck Avenue at exit 17 on Interstate 95, which carries more than 130,000 vehicles a day and is rated structurally deficient by state bridge inspectors.
"Nobody should have to drive their kids over or under a structurally deficient bridge," Himes said. "That should not happen in the U.S.A."
Flanked by representatives of the state's construction trade, local officials and others, Himes and U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., appeared under the Saugatuck Bridge to urge congressional approval of increased infrastructure investment to create construction jobs and improve safety and efficiency of the highway and transit networks in the state and nationally.
The most recent extension of the Surface Transportation Infrastructure Reauthorization Act, which expired in September 2009, will run out March 31.
Officials at the event focused on Connecticut's large number of aging bridges as an important transportation priority.
While Fairfield County has a significant number of structurally deficient bridges, as classified by the state Department of Transportation, DOT officials say the classification doesn't signify a threat of failure, but that repairs are required to reduce the load capacity called for an initial design. The average age of Connecticut's bridges is 47.2 years, according to the DOT.
Himes said a lack of transportation investment is prolonging a deep trough in the state's construction market, even as pressing work needs to be completed.
"I hope you get a chance to talk to the electricians, carpenters and others here because their stories will bring tears to your eyes," Himes said. "It is unacceptable, because we have the means to put them to work tomorrow."
Himes and Murphy said they both will vote against a current Republican-backed two-year spending plan coming to a House vote in the next few weeks.
Murphy said he expected the legislation to falter in the Senate; if approved it would result in a $400 million dip in highway and transit capital funding for Connecticut over a five-year period.
"That would mean dozens, if not hundreds of projects that won't get done and about 12,000 jobs the state could have had," Murphy said.
David Kooris, vice president of the Regional Plan Association, told the crowd that establishing a firm set of long-range projects has been stalled because of the lack of certainty about funding levels over a five- or six-year period. Congress has approved six-month extensions of the previous version of the surface transportation bill after it expired in 2009.
"We work on a three- to five-year horizon," Kooris said. "At this location, you see both I-95 and the (Metro-North) New Haven Line and we can't plan for roads and transit separately."
In a difficult economy, the slowdown in municipal, state and private construction work has kept many tradespeople unemployed.
Between March 2008 and October 2011, the number of construction jobs in Connecticut shrunk from 68,100 to 50,600, according to state labor statistics.
Arnie Novenstein, 54, of Bethany, and Frank Bedroian, 58, of New Britain, both heavy machinery operators with Hamden-based International Union of Operation Engineers Local 478, said they have been working only sporadically over the past two years.
While waiting for a construction market rebound, Novenstein said he has lived frugally on unemployment checks.
"It means not spending a dime if you don't have to," Novenstein said. "The idea of disposable income has disappeared for me."
Bedroian said a lack of meaningful or extended work has been demoralizing for construction professionals.
"I came here today from two hours away because I didn't have another place to be," Bedroian said. "I'm ready to work."