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New London port needs major federal investment, officials say

New London — A major investment from the federal government is needed to revitalize New London's port, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., flanked by state and local officials, said Friday.

The deepwater port, one of three such ports in the state, has the "potential to help drive economic progress and jobs here and in all of southeastern Connecticut," but that requires federal funding, Blumenthal said during a news conference held in a gravel lot at the State Pier property overlooking the Thames River.

"This is a perfect panorama of why infrastructure needs investment," Blumenthal said, noting Interstate 95, the Gold Star Bridge "that's served us well but deserves an upgrade," State Pier, "which could be the lifeblood of our local and regional economy," and Electric Boat "where dredging is critical to national security."

President-elect Donald Trump's trillion-dollar infrastructure plan centers around using tax incentives as a way to leverage public-private partnerships. But news reports indicate he could face roadblocks in getting his plan passed. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that a $3.6 trillion investment is needed in U.S. infrastructure by 2020.

New money — not just tax credits or breaks — is needed, Blumenthal argued, saying that any infrastructure plan should benefit ports like New London's. He said he and some colleagues drafted a provision in the Water Resources Development Act, which Congress is expected to pass next week, that would allow officials to seek out infrastructure grants to improve smaller ports like New London's.

The country has not invested in infrastructure for the past 40 years, Connecticut Port Authority board Chairman Scott Bates said. The feds haven't paid for dredging projects like they're "supposed to," he said, so the state invested $40 million over the past five years to "pick up the slack."

The state also has invested about $43 million in State Pier over the last 20 years, Bates said, "but it's not enough."

Officials did not provide the federal investment into State Pier during that same time period.

"In the age of globalization, which nobody can escape, the communities, the states, the countries that can move people and goods the fastest are going to win the economic competition in the future," Bates said.

Blumenthal and Bates pointed to the multiplier effect, saying money invested in rebuilding infrastructure leads to more jobs and more money being spent at local restaurants and shops.

"So we're counting on the federal investment, and then we'll know exactly how many jobs can be created," Bates said. "You can be sure that you're talking about hundreds of thousands of jobs statewide with the right kind of investments."

The port authority, which is focused on spurring development of the state's maritime industry, now controls New London's State Pier. The agency soon will be going to the State Bond Commission to request funding for projects at the pier. The exact amount of funding being sought has not yet been determined, but the board discussed $10 million to $15 million at its last meeting.

Bates on Friday did not provide much detail about proposed projects for the pier, as those plans still are being finalized. But he said the port authority is looking at ways to help the fishing fleet in New London, provide needed upgrades at State Pier to help move cargo more easily, and make investments that could help move cargo from trucks on the highways onto barges.

Mayor Michael Passero discussed the port's economic significance during the whaling era, and even as a kid growing up in New London he recalled seeing far more commercial ships coming in and out than today.

The pier is "probably" New London's principal asset, Passero said, and it has been neglected.

"It's my hope that, with this kind of recognition from our state and federal partners, New London will once again become that shipping and marine commerce backbone of Connecticut," he said.

Logistec, port operator, handles about 24 vessels a year in New London, most of them carrying steel from Europe, primarily Belgium and Germany, and also Asia.

The company currently employs a full-time staff of 10 people at State Pier, plus the more than 75 longshoremen who do work there, such as unloading cargo.

The port is well suited to bringing in vessels in the 15,000- to 20,000-metric-ton range, and to general cargo like steel and lumber — products that can be loosely loaded.

Salt is a relatively new commodity at the pier. In 2014, Steven Farrelly, owner of DRVN Enterprises of Wethersfield, began operating his salt distribution business on the pier.

j.bergman@theday.com

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