Returning to the water to unite our region

The essential element that unites most of southeastern Connecticut also could be the long-term key to spurring region-wide tourism and economic development. That element? Water.

Centuries ago, Native Americans used the fertile local riverbanks as agricultural fields; the rivers and Long Island Sound as sources of food and transportation networks. When Europeans settled the area, many arrived by boat and again, the rivers, ocean and sound supplied food and the means by which to travel and trade.

Indeed, for most of the region’s history its waterways were busy and often crowded places: passenger steamships plying Long Island Sound between Stonington and New York City, whalers shipping out of New London, ferries crisscrossing several local rivers and all manner of merchant and fishing vessels coming and going from a variety of ports from Stonington to Old Saybrook and north to Norwich and Essex.

Unfortunately, while the water always has retained its recreational lure, its role in commerce, tourism and transportation diminished significantly post-World War II. But as I-95 and other Connecticut highways now too often resemble parking lots instead of high-speed roadways, we think water’s time has come again and urge planning and tourism officials throughout the region to make regional water taxis a future reality.

There already are plenty of models to study and possibly emulate. Think Venice, Istanbul, Seattle, New York and Chicago. Water-based public transportation has long been reality in these and other cities.

A decade ago, a push to use the Potomac River as a way to move people more efficiently began among some in Washington D.C. Today, visitors can shuttle by water among the sleek National Harbor development in Prince George’s County, Maryland; Old Town Alexandria, Virginia and the National Mall in the District of Columbia. Special water taxis also bring visitors to baseball games at Nationals Park, located on the Anacostia River.

Now envision just some of the potential for water-based transportation in southeastern Connecticut: hop a water taxi in New London and hop off for dinner in Noank. Visit Mystic Seaport Museum, then take a water taxi to New London to enjoy some live music. Relax for a day at the beach, then ride a water taxi for a night at a casino.

Such a system would also appeal to residents. Many commuters between Groton and Norwich, for example, would no doubt prefer catching up on emails while aboard a water taxi than groaning over the latest fender bender-induced traffic jam on I-395.

One local businessman speaking at a public forum aimed at soliciting ideas for improving Stonington’s so-called Golden Triangle, earlier this week raised the possibility of establishing a Mystic River water taxi. A great idea, but why confine a taxi to Mystic? The Thames River Heritage Park’s water taxi has begun its second full season shuttling visitors among Groton and New London sites and the park’s officials hope to expand the taxi service next year to include the Submarine Force Museum and historic ship Nautilus. Further into the future, the park board wants to expand water taxi service as far north as Norwich. While expansion of a water taxi system from New London and Groton into the Mystic and Stonington areas should be done deliberatively and possibly incrementally in order to work out possible snags, a water taxi system that unites the entire region would best serve visitors and also help solve the perennial local complaint about too many tourists’ cars on local roads during the peak summer months.

The possibilities for a comprehensive and region-wide system of water taxis are far-reaching and deserve serious study from a group that will look at the entire area instead of a single slice of the pie.

The lure of the water – be it a river or the Sound – unites the region. It should also be a means by which to bolster the entire region’s future for both residents and visitors.

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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