By JOHN CHRISTOFFERSEN, Associated Press
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) _ Legislative leaders are proposing a new agency to make Connecticut’s three deep-water ports more competitive, saying the time is ripe to carve out a niche and boost their economic potential.
Officials are calling for a statewide port authority, a quasi-public agency, to promote the ports in New Haven, Bridgeport and New London to domestic and international shippers and seek funding for improvements. The move comes as U.S. ports invest billions in dredging and other projects to accommodate a new generation of larger ships anticipated as the Panama Canal is expanded.
While Connecticut’s ports can’t handle the largest ships, officials are hoping the state will benefit by winning the business of smaller ships as major ports focus on larger vessels.
“Connecticut is in a unique position where we can become the niche that services the smaller freight deliveries as the alternative to New York and Boston,” said House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden.
Connecticut’s ports are “grossly underutilized” and need improvements such as better rail connections, Sharkey said.
Sharkey said he plans to push for the measure, which passed the Senate last year but was not acted on in the House, while making sure the new agency is accountable. Democrats cited the proposal this month in announcing their agenda for the new legislative session.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Fairfield Republican running for governor, said he has long supported better use of the ports and voted for the bill last year to create the port authority. But he said questions remain about determining a long-term vision for the ports and the relationships between the authority, the state and cities where the ports are located.
“That’s the real issue that I don’t think we’ve fully addressed yet,” McKinney said.
A statewide port authority could help improve the competitiveness of the deep-water ports of Connecticut and reverse their decline, according to a 2012 study that said the ports have been mired in an import slump for several years. The majority of other states on the East Coast have port authorities that receive state funding and support, according to the report commissioned by the state Department of Transportation.
At the New Haven port, traffic measured in shipping tons fell from about 10.9 million tons in 2006 to 7.8 million in 2012, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. In New London, the decline has been from 1.4 million in 2006 to 484,000 in 2011, the last year available. In Bridgeport, the decline has been from 5.4 million tons in 2006 to about 2.6 million in 2011.
Total traffic from Connecticut in 2012 was 10.6 million tons, down 18 percent from the prior year, according to the Army Corps.
The decline can be turned around by expanding existing businesses and attracting new commerce, according to the 2012 study.
The study’s authors blamed much of the decline on the phasing out of coal, the elimination of fresh fruit imports into Bridgeport and the real estate market collapse that decreased demand for lumber, steel and other building materials.
Connecticut should work to retain and expand existing liquid and dry storage facilities, shipyards, ship repair companies and ferry services at the ports; develop more exporting of scrap metal and wood pellets; and increase imports of lumber, cooper, steel and fresh food, according to the report by Moffatt & Nichol, the Long Beach, Calif.-based port and harbor adviser, and Hartford-based consultant Beta Group.
The maritime industry in Connecticut fuels tens of thousands of jobs and $5 billion in economic activity, according to the Department of Transportation.
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