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Hard Work Ahead as CT Ports Look to Better Times

Posted to Global Maritime Analysis with Joseph Keefe (by on May 4, 2011

Connecticut Solicits for Marine Pilot Apprentice while ports beg for dredging relief. In the meantime, the Constitution State’s potential as the ideal shortsea shipping destination beckons…

If last month’s solicitation for an apprentice pilot by the Connecticut DOT sounded like good news from New England, then you probably aren’t too far off the mark. This and other snippets of information emanating from the Constitution state could form the basis for a major turnaround in the fortune of the state’s three deepwater ports, waterborne trade and ultimately the state’s tax coffers. With those hopes fueled by a new era in (apparent) harmony between Connecticut-based maritime pilots, there’s seemingly nothing to stop Connecticut from becoming the region’s new choice as a robust and viable shortsea shipping destination. Before any of that can happen, however, there are one or two details to take care of.


It wasn’t too long ago that the Long Island pilot situation was widely regarded as the nation’s most dysfunctional. With competing organizations regularly undercutting one another for a limited subset of marine business, a myriad of alliances – arguably at cross-purposes to the common goal of achieving some sort of economy of scale – gave new definition to the word “turmoil.“ A spokesperson from the Connecticut DOT once described the group as “their own worst enemies.” To be fair, it also took 25 years for the state to grant a pay raise, a phased-in set of increases which only recently became fully implemented. But that was then; this is now.


Today’s Connecticut pilots exude, at least outwardly, an entirely new front, operating under a common umbrella and finally being paid at something that approaches a fair rate of pay. The new arrangement didn’t come without a bit of prodding (and incentives) from the state’s DOT. Nevertheless, long-time Connecticut marine pilot Captain Charlie Jonas, reached at home yesterday for comment, described the new pilot arrangement as one which was working well for all involved, had facilitated the recruitment of new talent and also allowed a couple of the older pilots (whose collective age, excluding one new apprentice, is north of 65 years) to take a step back and assume a lesser role. Beyond this, Jonas expressed optimism that Connecticut’s elected leadership would go to bat for the ports in an effort to improve local infrastructure. He added, “Dredging is the big issue now.” In fact, that effort is well underway.    


Collectively, Connecticut’s three major ports have experienced a notable tonnage decline of about 11 percent over a three year period. Local pilots say that the decline is commensurate with a drop-off in boardings. Although unclear as to whether that can be more attributed to a miserable economy than anything else, the alarm bells are clearly going off in Hartford.


Yesterday, Chuck Beck, Transportation Maritime Manager for the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) described a March 21st meeting which included virtually major stakeholder on the Connecticut waterfront, along with Governor Malloy and the entire Connecticut congressional delegation. According to Beck, the meeting underscored the Governor’s commitment to the Constitution State’s ports, and a concerted effort to make good on his campaign promise to “improve infrastructure and local ports.” Malloy’s proposed budget, under consideration this week in Hartford, calls for $50 million in port improvements and dredging over the next two years. In Washington, the Connecticut delegation has spearheaded more than one legislative effort to compel the Obama Administration to release funds collected, but not disbursed, from the nation’s Harbor Maintenance Fund.


Beck also reminded MarPro that the dredging of ship channels is primarily a federal responsibility. Getting the funds which have been collected has proved problematic. At issue is the reported $5.6 billion balance in the Harbor Maintenance Tax and Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which, like other federal repositories, in theory exists but has probably already been spent. Port officials here and along the Eastern Seaboard complain bitterly about the $50+ billion allotted for high speed rail projects and ports like Miami, FL have resorted to pledging local funds in order to get ready for the new generation of Panamax containerships. But, the last Army Corps chief who complained about the lack of federal funding for dredging and/or infrastructure projects also found himself out of work. Those hoping for a groundswell of federal support for dredging projects are probably going to have to wait a bit longer.


With Rhode Island and New York already drilling deeper and deeper (or planning to do so) so as to increase their already healthy list of port calls, Connecticut can hardly hope to compete in that market. More logically, the three ports of New Haven, Bridgeport and New London are perfectly suited, if given the infrastructure, to serve as shortsea destinations. Arguably, Connecticut already hosts two of the brightest ferry routes from Long Island that have removed millions of vehicles from the I-95 corridor over the years. Both serve as admirable models to anyone else hoping to create similar economies of scale elsewhere. Building on that limited success will be difficult without the maintenance dredging desperately needed along the north shore of Long Island Sound.  On the other hand, the dredging won’t involve radical deepening projects and most of the environmental legwork has (reportedly) already been done.


With the necessary political leadership in Hartford and Washington, along with a more cohesive marine safety and pilotage system in Long Island Sound, the stars could be aligned for Connecticut to reverse a decade or two of benign neglect at their three, primary deepwater ports. And, it goes without saying that a small change in the HMT laws might move things along even faster. All of it, assuming it ever comes to fruition, is good for the economy, the waterfront and the domestic merchant marine. What’s not to like? – MarPro.

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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Managing Editor of the Maritime Professional print magazine. You can also read his work in MarineNews and Maritime Reporter magazines. He can be reached at [email protected] or at [email protected]. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.