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The creation of a Connecticut Port Authority is a critical first step in providing the vision and coordination that will be necessary to realize the potential of the state's underutilized deep-water ports in New London, New Haven and Bridgeport, allowing them to serve as economic engines driving job growth.
Legislation creating the port authority received unanimous support in the recent legislative session. On Monday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy came to the New London port for a ceremonial signing of this important bill.
The legislation calls for the port authority to become official on Oct. 1, 2015. Governing the agency will be a 15-member board. In the meantime, the new law requires the Department of Economic and Community Development to develop a business and operating plan for consideration by the new authority's board, with the intent of getting it off to a fast start.
Some might be tempted to criticize the Malloy administration and the legislature for not acting sooner. That Connecticut needs to do a better job of utilizing its cargo ports is widely accepted. But if the destination is effectively utilizing the ports, a road map to get there is necessary.
The Deep Water Port Strategy Study, completed last September, clearly lays out that map. Gov. Malloy commissioned the study during his first year in office. It is on the report's recommendation that the legislature created the Connecticut Port Authority. The report's careful, facts-based analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the state ports provides the parameters for building a development strategy.
The report makes clear Connecticut must focus on niche markets for its ports. Driving the industry is ever-larger cargo ships and the ports and warehouse facilities needed to handle them. This trend has concentrated shipping activity in about a dozen large ports. Five ports - New York/New Jersey, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Houston and Savannah handle 61 percent of container imports.
Yet smaller cargo ships, serving certain industries, need ports of call.Attracting that business could generate big economic benefits for Connecticut. For example, New London is well located for the export of wood pellets, used in heating stoves, produced by the Canadian and northern New England forestry industry and an increasingly popular product in Europe.
Scrap metal exports and lumber, copper and steel imports could also generate significant growth in activity for the Port of New London. The report also found New London well suited for fresh food imports and exports.
Import volumes dropped 80 percent at Connecticut's ports between 2006 and 2011, according to the report, while exports, a much smaller share of the cargo shipping market, remained steady. The state can and must do far better.
In New London, the state and city need to nurture what is working - the ferry services and the Thames Shipyard, the largest non-cargo employer among the three ports. Ferry growth will require more parking, as will the planned National Coast Guard Museum. State incentives may be necessary to encourage the continued expansion of ship-repair business at Thames Shipyard.
Improved rail service is critical to making better use of the New London port. Connecticut is seeking federal aid to improve the New England Central Rail line as it runs from New London's deep-water port north through Connecticut. The line continues north up the spine of New England to Canada.
In Connecticut, the line does not meet the 286,000-pound railcar capacity standard for freight established by the Association of American Railroads in 1995. That means railcars on the Connecticut section of the line can only be partially loaded. The planned improvements would bring the line up to industry standards and help attract cargo business to New London.
Connecticut has allocated $3.6 million to upgrade bridges and make track improvements along sections of the line and is seeking $8.2 million in federal help. It would be a sound investment.