The congressman is right, don't let New London become single-use port

When five years ago local officials gathered to celebrate obtaining a hard-to-come-by federal grant, with the money to be used to rebuild the New England Central freight rail line from New London to the Massachusetts border, they chose State Pier as the backdrop.

This was for good reason.

In working to prepare the grant application, the office of U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, had gathered information from communities and businesses along the length of the railway in Connecticut, many making the case that a robust rail connection to the state port would provide a big economic boost. It would not only allow larger and heavier loads to be off-loaded from ships in New London and transported north, but also provide incentives for manufacturing and agricultural products produced locally to be shipped out of the harbor.

The installation of the rebuilt line, with seamless rails replacing the rusted, jointed rails that now limit freight-car weight and speed to well below industry standards, has been painstakingly slow. Now that the project is nearing completion, quite possibly by year’s end, it would make no sense for the rebuilt line to arrive at a port that no longer accommodates regular cargo-ship service.

If that happened, it could be argued the $8.2 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery award, or TIGER grant, was obtained under false pretenses. The state and New England Central owner Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services provided the matching money.

Yet another press conference held at State Pier, this one in early May of this year, raised concerns about traditional cargo service being crowded out during the infrastructure overhaul of the pier that would allow it to serve as a staging area for large-scale offshore wind power. Unclear, also, is how much traditional shipping can be handled once wind power-support operations begin.

At that May press conference, Gov. Ned Lamont was joined by representatives of the Connecticut Port Authority, offshore wind developer Ørsted, its partner in the project, Eversource, and Gateway New London LLC, the port manager, to announce a $93 million public-private partnership to reinvent State Pier. The final details remain under negotiation.

We recognize the significant, positive impact offshore wind development could have for the pier, the host city and the region. The challenges of carrying out the overhaul and later the staging work for the offshore windfarms, while also accommodating traditional freighters, is certainly daunting.

Officials for Gateway and Ørsted say they will do what they can, that there will be periods when shipping service is interrupted, others when it can be accommodated. In the final deal, Connecticut needs stronger assurances than that, with an agreement requiring that all reasonable steps be taken to keep cargo ships coming to New London, even if that requires additional private investment to accommodate them.

The congressman, meeting on Wednesday with the editorial board, made it clear he also wants assurances.

“I have to confess, they say they are going to accommodate other users, but every time I look at the plans, it doesn’t look like there is really any space for them to even do that,” Courtney told the board. “We have a very attractive asset here and we don’t want it to become a single-use exclusive pier.”

An expected hearing in August (no date has been set) by the state legislature’s Transportation Committee, and increased scrutiny by Lamont’s office, could provide a chance for a “reset” that tightens up the understanding about freighter service, Courtney said. The hearing is in response to controversies involving the Connecticut Port Authority.

The Energy and Technology Committee should also consider weighing in. It is chaired by 33rd District Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, while Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, whose 20th District includes New London, is the ranking Senate member.

Offshore wind development provides a great opportunity, but it should not come at the expense of squelching other economic opportunities.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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