NAUGATUCK — “Stimulus” is a word we see thrown about quite often these days. We hear about stimulus packages, stimulus spending, and stimulus bills aimed at rebuilding and repairing infrastructure, encouraging investment and community growth, and putting America back to work.
The federal government has, to date, promised approximately $939 billion in funds so-called. President George W. Bush approved a $152 billion package two years ago, and President Barack Obama signed into law the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last February. So far, about 34 percent of ARRA monies have been paid out, according to recovery.gov. About $204 billion in federal contracts, grants and loans awarded have reportedly saved or created 599,102 jobs.
On Monday, the president proposed a 2010-11 budget which would boost the deficit to a record-breaking $1.56 trillion and set the U.S. on a course to add $8.5 trillion (a 69 percent increase) to its total national debt over the next decade.
As unemployment remains stagnant (10 percent nationally, 8.8 percent in Connecticut), many Americans are growing increasingly frustrated by spending measures which, by appearances, haven’t yet done much but augment our national deficit and prospectively increase the country’s debt burden. Obama’s approval rating has dipped below 50 percent in many polls, according to the Washington Post.
Be that as it may, all those billions of federal dollars do end up finding their way into municipal programs one way or another.
The only stimulus cash Naugatuck has seen to date has replaced funding for a portion of the educational cost sharing grant historically provided by the state Department of Education, according to Controller Wayne McAllister.
Federal stimulus money will soon pay for a new bike rack for the train station on Water Street. The platform might get some warning strips and new stairs if there’s enough money left over.
The Connecticut Department of Transportation was recently awarded a $10 million ARRA grant for the purposes of improving and repairing train stations and boarding platforms across the state.
The award is in keeping with the Obama administration’s emphasis on and promotion of public transit.
John Bernick, a project manager with the state DOT, said the $10 million was parceled out according to a study of 35 stations and the subsequent prioritization of their various needs. In the two construction phases currently funded and planned, Naugatuck and Beacon Falls will receive a bike rack apiece and are on a list of “bid alternates” for Phase B, meaning other repairs would only materialize given enough leftover cash, once other stations on the main line along the coast are fully attended to.
Bernick said the Waterbury branch line was not disfavored because of its relatively low ridership but rather because some stations along the main line are in dire need of improvements.
According to e-mails between Bernick and Mayor’s Aide Ed Carter, obtained by Citizen’s News, those high-priority repairs include replacing gutters and roof decking, field painting and upgrading shelter structures.
Though some of the repairs might sound cosmetic, Bernick and DOT Spokesman Kevin Nursick said problems like rust and peeling paint end up becoming “more than an eyesore.”
Rotted and leaking gutters can exacerbate icing problems on platforms during the winter, they said, and that becomes a hazard for pedestrians. Guardrails that become structurally unsound pose a grave safety concern as well.
“These are the kinds of things we uncovered and said, ‘We’ve got to spend more money here.’ Those are the tough decisions. I truly mean that,” Bernick said. “I’ve been working [train] stations for a long time now. I’m aware of all the issues, and I’d love to have a lot more money to really get everything to a state of good repair and then eventually make some real improvements.”
Carter contacted Citizen’s News after exchanging e-mails with Bernick and feeling slighted by the limited scope of the Naugatuck upgrade.
“I just want my fair share,” he said.
Bernick’s original estimate, made in July, for Phase-A construction on the Naugatuck platform was about $47,000. Bernick said those “preliminary numbers” were based on inspection reports and that after performing actual site-by-site assessments, he found “a lot of items we had to prioritize.”
“Based on that and based on cost estimates,” he said, “we had to reallocate the scope of the program, and because of that, we had to make decisions to take some things out.”
Once the DOT conducted field reviews, the $47,000 estimate dropped to about $7,000.
For the sake of comparison, allocations for the Derby-Shelton, Ansonia, Seymour and Beacon Falls stations are approximately $268,000, $158,000, $16,000 and $7,000, respectively.
Bernick said the $7,000 wasn’t based on the real cost of installing a bike rack. The actual cost would be somewhere around $1,700.
And although $7,000 may seem an exorbitant sum for a bike rack, the figure is what Bernick called a “tracking number,” a figure which had the administrative costs of all construction statewide built into it. Bernick and Nursick said costs like contingency accounts for overages and incidentals such as inspection and testing account for about 30 percent of the overall cost of railroad work.
Another significant cost is what’s called force account protection, which covers labor costs for workers who maintain and protect the work zone throughout the course of any construction by regulating electricity, dealing with the in-and-out flow of trains, and so on.
The total of these administrative costs was divided up between the 35 stations and built into the bid estimates, according to the DOT. That’s why, at first glance, it appeared that Naugatuck would be getting a $7,000 bike rack at the train station.
Regardless, Carter and Mayor Bob Mezzo said there were more pressing needs at the station, including proper lighting, an emergency phone, signs and the aforementioned wheelchair-accessible ramp. Mezzo said the borough could use a planning grant for a flybridge adjacent to the station, which would be part of the Renaissance Place downtown revitalization project.
And neither Naugatuck nor Beacon Falls has been prioritized for Phase B construction, which Bernick said entails structural repairs and other “big-ticket items.” Both municipalities have been put on a list of bid alternates, but Bernick said there may be some cash to spare, since the DOT was “getting good numbers on bids for Phase B.”
According to Nursick, ridership on all rail lines in the state is increasing.
“We’ve been trending up for a number of years,” he said. “Gas prices spiked, and we continued to trend up; as the economy soured over the last year, year and a half, the numbers started to level off and pull back a few [percentage] points.”
In 2007, he said, total ridership on the Waterbury branch line was 165,000, a 29 percent increase over 2006. And that figure increased again in 2008, by 33 percent, to 309,000.
Numbers for 2009 are not yet available.
Nursick said part of the ARRA-funded improvement program was to make riding the train more attractive to commuters by not only upgrading platforms and stations but also adding more services.
“To some extent, if you run it, they will come,” he quipped. “We’re always looking to increase ridership on mass transit. We want to make it efficient and appealing. And I think it’s obviously shown that it works because the governor has been very focused and clear that she wants people to use mass transit.”
The Waterbury branch line makes stops in Bridgeport, Stratford, Derby-Shelton, Ansonia, Seymour, Beacon Falls, Naugatuck and Waterbury.