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Hartford - Two similar bills that would create a Connecticut Port Authority are moving through the legislature with the goal of developing Connecticut's niche exports and finding more import opportunities for the state.
The authority would be tasked with increasing cargo movements, marketing the ports and coordinating capital funding. Connecticut's deepwater ports - New London, Bridgeport and New Haven - currently bring in less than 2 million tons of cargo and export less than 1 million tons annually.
"We are never going to compete with the New Yorks and New Jerseys," said state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington. "Those are enormous and historic (ports). We are talking about improving our market standing by getting people out there who can hustle and let people know there might be some more economic ports in Connecticut."
One of the bills, House Bill 5575, will be called to a vote Tuesday in the Commerce Committee, while the other, House Bill 5289, has already passed the Transportation Committee and is headed to the floor of the House of Representatives.
The Transportation Committee bill is nearly identical to a bill passed by the state Senate last year but never voted on in the House. Maynard said the bill should pass in the Senate again and that the speaker of the House, Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, supports it.
The governor's budget office doesn't support either of the bills as written but would like to continue discussing the issue with legislators. A spokesman for the state's Department of Economic and Community Development said the department looks forward to working on this issue, but more planning and analysis are needed.
On Thursday, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Peter Yazbak, said, "The governor is committed to finding an approach that puts an appropriate structure in place - one that allows us to market and coordinate activity among our ports and that helps them reach their full economic potential."
By comparison to the three smaller Connecticut ports, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey moves $5.5 billion tons of cargo annually, according to the DECD. Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-Broad Brook, said as the Panama Canal is being expanded, more large vessels will be doing business with New York and New Jersey, but Connecticut can catch some of the smaller vessels.
In written testimony, OPM said it was concerned about whether port authority employees would be part of the state collective bargaining units and where the funding stream for the authority would come from.
Maynard said the employee concern would be easy to address because there would only be eight or nine employees. There wouldn't be as many employees to coordinate as there were when the Connecticut Airport Authority was set up, he said.
"Our bill primarily seeks to create an authority that can respond quickly … so it doesn't have to go through (Department of Transportation) bureaucracy to make market decisions, act quickly and respond to investment opportunities," Maynard said.
The DECD wants to know which ports would be under the jurisdiction of the port authority, what would happen to the state-owned pier in New London and where the start-up funds would come from, said Tim Sullivan, director of waterfront, brownfield and transit-oriented development of the DECD.
Maynard said the legislation was designed to be flexible and give power to the statewide port authority.
"Legislators are the last people we want crafting the details of running the port authority," Maynard said. "I think we should let people who actually know the business do that."
The port authority would be established by July 1, 2016, and made up of seven voting board members and an executive director, according to both bills.
If passed, the bill would also create an Office of Maritime Development this July that would start setting up the Connecticut Port Authority and provide a report to the governor and General Assembly by Jan. 1, 2016.
"What it takes is having (a) dedicated person out there to grab these niche markets before it is too late," Maynard said. "We don't want to fiddle around and answer every kind of detailed policy question in the legislation. We are going to leave some of those decision for the port authority itself."
Imports to the three deepwater ports have decreased by 80 percent since 2006 in part because of larger containers and vessels being sent to ports in New York/New Jersey, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Calif., Houston and Norfolk, Va., which have built up their infrastructure, according to the DECD.