“That’s the way we’ve always done it,” wasn’t good enough for the Governor of Connecticut. Frustrated with the botched expansion of Interstate 84, newly discovered irregularities in the Waterbury-Cheshire area, major traffic impediments over state highways and the culture of “same-old, same-old,“ Governor M. Jodi Rell shook up the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) this year in the face of several billions in highway projects she has initiated.
“I want a better, stronger DOT and this (change) marks a new day for this critical department,” Rell said. “This agency requires the best leadership available. It needs to accelerate the pace of change and improvement at DOT. The I-84 failure was unfortunately the latest in a series of irregularities and problems at DOT that point to the need for cultural and organizational change. We are investing billions of dollars in our transportation system. Successful organizations — both public and private — recognize the need for change and act upon it.”
Billions in Transportation at Stake
In 2005, Rell, flanked by Congressman Chris Shays, then ConnDOT Commissioner Stephen Korta and state legislators, signed her landmark $1.3 billion Transportation Initiative at the South Norwalk Metro-North train station.
In her years in office, Rell has initiated what some officials estimate at more than $3.5 billion in new transportation projects and programs — the largest such investment since the mid-1980s.
“As governor, I have led the way for the largest investment in decades in our transportation network — mass transit, rail service and road building. However, DOT must be about more than roads and rails. It needs to be more litter, lights and parking garages at our rail stations. That push is what is behind this leadership change.”
The leadership change began at the top. Over the summer, Gov. Rell accepted ConnDOT Commissioner Stephen E. Korta II’s decision to return to his former post as Aviation Administrator at DOT’s Bureau of Aviation and Ports. In addition, two ConnDOT Deputy Commissioners — Charles Urso of South Windsor and Carl Bard of Vernon — retired.
“Leading the DOT has been the biggest challenge of my career in public service, and I will always be grateful to Governor Rell for her support and faith in my ability,” said Commissioner Korta, a Marlborough resident who joined ConnDOT in 1997. Korta also served more than six years as Airport Administrator at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, and later became DOT’s Aviation Administrator.
“Steve Korta, Charlie Urso and Carl Bard have made an effective leadership team at this all-important state agency. The department and the people of Connecticut have been well served by the work they have done and the standards they have set, and I thank them for their hard work,” Gov. Rell said. “I understand their desire to move to new phases in their lives and I wish them well.”
She then named Motor Vehicles Commissioner Ralph J. Carpenter the new commissioner of the department. Carpenter was then approved by the state legislature. Commissioner Carpenter, of Canton, was named Motor Vehicles Commissioner in 2005. Previously he had served 25 years with the Department of Public Safety, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Rell said she chose Carpenter because he will be effective in implement her transportation improvement initiatives. “This agency manages billions of state and federal dollars every year covering thousands of contracts. Ralph Carpenter has implemented many key reforms at DMV and I have directed him to continue that mission at DOT,” she said when nominating him.
Deputy commissioners Urso and Bard have been succeeded by Raeanne Curtis, former Chief of Staff in the Department of Public Works and James Boice, former Interim Chief of DOT’s Bureau of Public Transportation. Curtis and Boice also are on board with the new plan.
“The people of Connecticut count on the Department of Transportation for safe, efficient travel and I will make every effort to support that mission,” said Raeanne Curtis, of Hamden, who is also a former Chief of Staff in the Department of Consumer Protection. “I have assured the Governor that her vote of confidence in me is not misplaced.”
“Connecticut can rightly say that it has among the best Departments of Transportation in the country, and I am proud to be able to serve this great agency in a new capacity,” said James Boice of Glastonbury.
All of the appointments were effective Aug. 4 and were later approved by state legislators in open vote.
ConnDOT is headquartered in Newington and is responsible for the construction and maintenance of major Connecticut roads, highways and bridges, and the state’s public transit system. The 3,200-employee agency also oversees commuter and freight rail lines, shoreline ports and piers, ferries and Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks. Its stated mission is to “provide a safe, efficient and cost-effective transportation system that meets the mobility needs of its users.”
Month by Month Changes Made in 2007
Rell has made other structural and policy changes as well. In June, she ordered ConnDOT to inspect all bridges in the state on a two-year cycle, noting that the agency will be receiving an influx of engineering inspector positions approved in the new state budget that took effect July 1. For the last nine years bridges that have been rated in “fair” condition or better have been inspected on a four-year cycle rather than a two-year cycle, a move that had been approved by the Federal Highway Administration in 1998.
“Given the sweeping cultural and organizational changes I am making at DOT, this is a time when we should re-commit ourselves to safety and increase our commitment to bridge inspections,” Rell said. “We all share an understandable concern about bridge safety, given not only the historic tragedy of the Mianus River Bridge collapse but the overall age of the highway network in our state and the volume it carries.
“At the same time, the new state budget which goes into effect on (July 1) provides for 81 new engineering inspection positions at DOT,” she added. “While these new inspectors will have a wide range of projects and duties that will need their attention, bridge inspections will be included on that list of responsibilities.”
Connecticut currently has 1,144 bridges on the four-year inspection frequency out of 5,014 bridges — roughly one in five. 3,870 bridges are already inspected every two years. The 5,014 bridges include 3,777 state-maintained and 1,237 town-maintained bridges.
In July, Rell announced that the DOT had completed inspecting all 561 bridges previously on a four-year inspection cycle that came due this year, bringing all Connecticut bridges onto that two-year cycle. The 81 new state inspectors will have a wide range of projects and duties, and future bridge inspections are included on that list of responsibilities.
On July 9, ConnDOT awarded a contract to Empire Paving, of North Haven, Conn., for the corrective work for the state project on I-84 in the town of Cheshire and city of Waterbury. This project includes improvements to all roadway and storm drainage systems between Exits 25 and 27 on I-84 and local roadway improvements in and around the interchanges.
Staged construction work began on July 26. Staged construction involved the installation of pre-cast barrier curb in the median and shifting the travel lanes on I-84 in the eastbound and westbound directions throughout the project. The project limits are Marion Road in Cheshire to Pierpont Road in Waterbury. Construction will remain in this configuration until late fall. Staging will be shifted prior to winter.
Money ’Down the Drain’
In early 2006, after extensive defects in the project’s drainage system were discovered by DOT personnel, L.G. DeFelice of North Haven, the primary contractor for the project, walked off the job and their $52 million contract. They went out of business after last year’s construction season, citing financial reasons. The $6 million contract with the Maguire Group Inc., of New Britain — hired by DOT to inspect the project and ensure contract compliance — was subsequently terminated in 2006.
On Aug. 3, Rell, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Carpenter announced that the provider of L. G. DeFelice Inc.’s performance bond will pay the state $17.5 million to settle claims stemming from the company’s installation of defective storm drains on I-84. The payment from United States Fidelity & Guaranty (USF&G) — a division of Travelers — allows ConnDOT to begin repairing those defective drains along that three-mile stretch of I-84 in Cheshire and Waterbury. Under the agreement, the state retains the right to sue L.G. DeFelice for additional funds.
The highway project includes about 300 drains. Inspectors have taken another look at about 280 of them, and all but 10 needed additional work. Approximately 100 of the drains have required major reconstruction, including some that are below new pavement.
“I said we would protect the interests of the state and our taxpayers and that the responsible parties must be held accountable,” Rell said. “Now we can move forward and I have directed the DOT to make the repairs as quickly as possible.”
“From the time DOT first uncovered this defective work, I have had three goals: to ensure the safety of our commuters, to get the road fixed properly and to do so without using any additional taxpayer money,” Rell added. “This agreement accomplishes those goals while safeguarding our ability to pursue additional legal remedies if necessary.”
Attorney General Blumenthal added, “This money will help finish the job — redoing and repairing incompetent or possibly corrupt work — but we will aggressively act against anyone who should be held accountable for this construction debacle. Only the insurer is paying today. Others responsible will be targeted and pursued for recovery. “
“This step restores taxpayer money that almost disappeared down the drain, enabling the state to begin vital repairs. Inept, improper work installing and inspecting I-84 storm drains threatens huge financial costs and highway safety. There has been a pileup of problems in this roadway — unrelated to weather. My office is exploring all options, including legal action against other individuals and companies, including DeFelice and the Maguire Group — to recoup additional funds,” Blumenthal added.
Commissioner Carpenter said, “The DOT is entrusted with millions of dollars of taxpayer money every year and it is our obligation to see that the money is spent properly. I am pleased that the department has been able to negotiate this agreement and I commend USF&G for promptly investigating, evaluating and discharging its bond obligations fairly and responsibly in the resolution of this matter. “I want to give a special word of gratitude to the members of the DOT’s Office of Construction and the attorney general for their hard work and ultimate success in these negotiations.”
In August, Rell announced a new $100 million “Safe and Sound” plan to speed up high priority bridge repair and replacement projects over the next two years. The $100 million will address the priority bridge replacement and repair projects and the Governor will direct ConnDOT to develop a priority list and schedule for initiating the projects.
On Oct. 5, ConnDOT announced that work is near completion in Stage 1B Stage 1B includes median repairs for the middle section of the project, in the eastbound and westbound direction of I-84 in the vicinity of Route 70. Traffic will be shifted to prepare for work in the next stage, which will include the median repairs at the two ends of the project, in the eastbound and westbound direction of I-84.
Most of the drainage repairs on Route 70 south of I-84 have been completed. Drainage work on Route 70 will be put on hold while most of the contractor labor and equipment are working on the I-84 median repairs. The contractor will be aggressively working in the median area and is scheduled to complete median drainage repairs before the Christmas holiday.
On Oct. 9, the Governor’s specially appointed Commission on the Reform of the DOT held a public hearing at the City Hall Annex in Bridgeport, one of several stops the commission has made throughout the state, gathering information and recommendations from the public solicited by Rell to completely reform the damaged transportation organization.
“We have a great many talented and dedicated people here, and, with the help of Governor Rell and this commission, I am confident we can find ways to better serve the public and improve on our mission to provide a safe, efficient and cost-effective transportation system that meets the mobility needs of its users,” said Commissioner Carpenter.
The Governor has asked for complete recommendations on DOT operations by Dec. 1.
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