Photo: Dan Haar /Hearst Connecticut Media
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BERLIN — Three design engineers at the state Department of Transportation stood among hundreds of colleagues on the second floor of the DOT’s main office, overlooking the huge, oblong, airy atrium, waiting for Gov. Ned Lamont to emerge from the commissioner’s office.
I asked what they’d like to ask, or tell, or hear from the new governor as he stopped by the DOT, one of his first agency visits since his Jan. 9 inauguration.
“How we’re portrayed in the media — people always like to bash on the state workers,” said one, who declined to give his name. “I don’t know how to beat it.”
That bothers him. It also bothers Lamont.
And it matters more than usual in 2019 because DOT, a crucial agency for the state’s economic hopes, remains far understaffed in the wake of the Malloy cutbacks. Yes, Malloy cut government, he didn’t increase it.
The department, with 2,865 employees, has 497 positions authorized by the legislature but not filled, upwards of half of them are maintainers who handle snow and ice and potholes and all that stuff.
Dan writes about the intersection of business, public policy and politics and how the issues affect the people of Connecticut.
That means everyone is working harder, at least in theory. The peak was about 6,000 people in 1985 after former Gov. Bill O’Neill’s push following the Mianus River Bridge collapse.
It’s not an overstatement to say progress in highway and transit systems is viewed as one of the linchpins of restoring economic growth. What’s new is that Lamont views the issue not just as a money question, not just as systems and processes, not just as a game of political management, though it’s all that.
No, he’s starting with the lost art of motivation, which many corporations in this era of technocracy have forgotten.
“This is one of the first places I wanted to come,” he told the loosely assembled employees Thursday afternoon, many leaning over rails in the 4-story atrium. “Something you never hear is, first of all, thank you for what you’re doing…for the state of Connecticut.”
That’s what those engineers wanted to hear. It started on the campaign and Lamont is continuing that approach.
“There’s only so much you can get done in four years and a lot of it’s going to be defined by the budget,” he said. “We don’t have to get it all done in four years but we’ve got to tell people what this state’s going to look like in ten years.
“That’s how they come back, that’s how they grow, that’s how our kids come back and stay here. We turned around those moving vans so thank you so much to each and every one of you.”
No, sorry, we haven’t turned around those moving vans just yet, although there’s some evidence the outmigration from Connecticut may be abating. Motivation does require some serious optimism and that’s what we’re seeing from Governor Ned.
Fitting his aw, shucks style, Lamont showed up in a jacket with open-neck, dress shirt, pressing flesh and listening to people’s stories like Bubba Clinton at a barbecue.
“I know you’re under stress, it’s going to take us a while to get that fixed but in the meantime, we’re going to put in place a system….And I really think that what’s going on in this building is going to define this state for the next generation…It starts right now with each and every one of you.”
Speaking of wild optimism, Lamont talked about high-speed rail and his “30-30-30” declaration: Thirty minutes to get from Hartford to New Haven, 30 from New Haven to Stamford, 30 from Stamford to midtown Manhattan, Grand Central Terminal.
That has a nicer ring to it than “45…an hour and 15 minutes if you’re lucky….and whatever.”
Lamont, who’s showing an early knack for staying on point, on schedule, followed his new DOT commissioner, Joe Giulietti, down to the basement-level highway operations command center, an automated war room with control stations and a dozen big screens on the wall showing live videos from across the state.
Governor Ned asked what the command center can do — such as, “Do you track speeders on GPS?”
No, but they do work closely with the state police.
Looking at a scene of tree removal along I-91 in Cromwell, he said, “Could you just leave a few of those trees up there, a couple of them, to give us that woody look?”
“Yes, sir,” said Paul Rizzo, the bureau chief of highway operations, clearly not intending to fulfill that request in the what I’d call the bark wars between tree lovers and highway managers. Safety comes first, Rizzo and other top DOT officials later told me as I asked about saving trees along the Merritt Parkway.
It wouldn’t be a visit to DOT in 2019 without some talk of highway tolls. Much has been made, by me and others, about the alleged rift between Lamont — who said he favors tolls for long-haul truckers only, like Rhode Island is trying to do — and Guilietti, who favors broader tolling.
Guilietti, a former Metro North president from New Haven, who started the same day as Lamont, downplayed the difference and said the department is working on proposals to present to Lamont.
“What I’m encouraged by is that we’ve got a governor that recognizes the need for some tolling,” Guilietti told me, walking a fine line.
On the way out, I asked Lamont about a study a few years back, done by DOT, that showed it’s cheaper to bring work back in-house to design highway and some transit projects — rather than pay outside firms. The Connecticut State Employees Association, the union that represents about 800 DOT engineers, strongly favors those results, obviously, but DOT managers under Malloy remained skeptical.
“We’ve got to look at that, don’t we?” Lamont said. He talked about the distinctions between hiring out for ultra-specialized work and doing more routine design work in-house.
Speaking of that issue, in a comment that summarizes his overall philosophy, he added, “We’ve got to put that over the finish line.”