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The state has approved funding for a water-taxi pilot project between Groton and New London that will operate for about two months on the Thames River starting late this summer and, if successful, could become a mainstay of the region's tourism season in 2015.
The water taxi will run from the foot of Fort Street near Fort Griswold in Groton to Fort Trumbull and City Pier in New London, said Penny Parsekian, who is coordinating the project as a consultant for the historic Avery-Copp House in Groton. The water taxi idea was first broached three decades ago as part of a Thames River Heritage Park plan - never completed - that would have tied together the region's historic attractions.
"A lot of work was done in the '80s and early '90s - we just want to finish the job," Parsekian said.
The water-taxi demonstration project will be funded by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. A request for proposals is being sent out through the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, which has endorsed the plan.
Jim Butler, executive director of the Norwich-based SCCOG, said the water taxi is scheduled to start the first week of September and will run sometime into November. He said the idea of the first year's shortened season is to work out kinks in the service and to build interest for next year.
"I think this has a lot of potential," Butler said.
Groton's Ebenezer Avery House and New London's Shaw Mansion and U.S. Custom House are three of the historic sites that could gain more traction with the addition of a water taxi, according to officials. A more expansive water taxi next year also might include a connection to the Submarine Force Museum in Groton and other sites, they said.
"We have so many wonderful little sites, but they are so disconnected," Parsekian said.
Rita Schmidt, Groton town mayor and a member of the water-taxi organizing group who was involved in planning for the Thames River Heritage Park more than two decades ago, said the state is looking to lease or rent a vessel that can carry up to 42 passengers. She said the idea is to begin making the region even more inviting for tourism as New London gears up for the construction of a National Coast Guard Museum near the downtown transportation hub centered at Union Station.
"With the Coast Guard Museum coming in, that's one of the reasons that sort of justifies everything," Parsekian said. "It creates the critical mass we all have been looking for."
Parsekian said the water taxi would be an on-call system. Passengers could make a phone call on a dedicated line to the water-taxi operator, who could pick them up within minutes, she said.
"The beauty of that system is it would be environmentally a good thing," Parsekian said. "They wouldn't be wasting gas."
She said the Navy has been very supportive of the project, but it wouldn't be until next year that all the approvals would be in place to extend the water taxi to the sub museum that includes the USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered submarine.
Other work needs to be done, she added, including repairs to a docking area at Fort Trumbull that was damaged two years ago during Hurricane Sandy.
Parsekian said the heritage park plan - passed by the state legislature this year with a big push from state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, and support from state Reps. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, and Ted Moukawsher, D-Groton, among others - has won backing from both sides of the river. In addition to Schmidt and Groton City Mayor Marian Galbraith, New London City Councilors Wade Hyslop and Martin Olsen have devoted their time to the project, she said.
Parsekian said the water-taxi project had been proposed years ago but never came to fruition because of disagreements over where to locate a visitors center that would have been the centerpiece of the heritage park. Schmidt said some of the initial heritage-park funding was subsequently used to spruce up New London's downtown Parade area.
The Yale Urban Design Workshop has been doing conceptual work on the heritage park plans, and Parsekian said she expected the group to issue a report by Sept. 6, the date when water taxis are expected to commence and the annual Battle of Fort Griswold commemoration will be held.
"The water taxi is part of a whole concept, not a standalone transportation link," Parksekian said.