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New London — The State Bond Commission's decision Wednesday to fund $5.8 million in improvements and engineering studies for State Pier will open the door for larger ships and a greater variety of cargo to arrive in the city.
But it will be at least two years before Adm. Harold E. Shear State Pier starts to see much more than cosmetic changes, officials said.
"There's a lot of general maintenance things that need to be taken care of," said Chuck Beck, transportation maritime manager for the state Department of Transportation.
A major makeover will await engineering studies by Cheshire-based Milone & MacBroom that were funded by the Bond Commission. The engineering reports should be finished within the next 18 months.
"As the economy turns around, there's potential for a lot of business," said Phil Michalowski of New London, a principal at the engineering firm.
Beck said long-range plans include the possibility of upgrading the port to accommodate ships just under 1,000 feet long, up from the current 700-foot limit. Dredging and other improvements yet to be approved by the Bond Commission likely would cost in the tens of millions of dollars, Beck acknowledged.
The idea, Beck said, would be to tap into a proposed marine highway system in the Northeast — dubbed M-95 to connect it psychologically to Interstate 95 — that could reduce highway truck traffic, save money and be more environmentally friendly.
"I don't think we'll ever compete with a New York or Boston," Beck said. "But could New London, Bridgeport and New Haven be relief ports for New York and Boston? Absolutely."
Activity at State Pier nearly doubled in 2012 compared to the previous year, thanks to improved economic conditions and port operator Logistec USA's decision to consolidate its operations to one site in the state. But the amount of cargo off-loaded in New London is still well below the peaks seen from 2004 to 2006, when the building industry was in full swing.
A state study commissioned last year indicated that the state's three deepwater ports had the potential to garner more business with proper marketing, management and facilities. A deficiencies and needs study of State Pier completed in 2011 by Milone & MacBroom contemplated a wide variety of changes at the port, including the relocation of the fishing fleet, the relocation or removal of a public boat launch, improved security, and the construction of a new 100,000-square-foot warehouse.
The study also said New London had potential for expanding its now-limited handling of materials to include sand and gravel, pulp and paper, water, containerized trash and perhaps even automobiles.
Other improvements contemplated at State Pier include better lighting, more efficient equipment and more surface area to lay down cargo.
"You need to stay current with competition in the real world," Beck said.
He said the state didn't have any specific types of cargo in mind with its port upgrades, but better facilities would accommodate a wide range of possibilities, including the return of lumber shipments that once dominated State Pier activity. Over the past few years, virtually all off-loading in New London has been steel products.
While the Bond Commission's funding is expected to create or retain about 74 construction jobs, Beck said, well over 100 permanent jobs might be available after a full build-out of the State Pier project.
"The maritime industry is a vital component of our state's economy," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in a statement supporting bond money for the ports.
Ned Hammond, economic development coordinator for the city, said State Pier has space limitations, but the hope is that better facilities will boost activity levels, creating more revenue for port operator Logistec and the state.
"We support the improvements that are being done there," Hammond said.