New London should collect landing fees from ferry passengers

You need only to hunt for a space in New London's downtown parking garage on a summer Friday to know how many people are packed onto the Block Island ferry.

Check out the endless line of traffic making right turns from the ferry property onto Water Street, heading toward Interstate 95, each time one of the big Long Island ferries finishes docking.

There are dozens of ferry trips in and out of New London every day, and some of the big Cross Sound ferries carry hundreds of passengers.

Why can't New London claim a revenue piece of all that traffic it is accommodating across its harbor and on its roads? Landing or embarkation fees for ferry passengers are routine in many places.

A landing fee of 50 cents or a dollar per passenger could be a windfall for the struggling poor city, which accommodates thousands of transients every day.

After all, the ferry company pays only property tax to the city on its land and buildings, not a single dime on its huge fleet of valuable boats, which live here a lot of the time but can't be taxed by New London.

All other city businesses have to pay taxes on their motor vehicles and business equipment. Every city resident has to pay a tax on their car.

Since the Massachusetts legislature in 2004 gave municipalities the right to collect embarkation fees for ferries in their towns, programs have been established throughout the state, creating a robust revenue stream for port communities.

Some towns measure their annual share in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Steamship Authority, which runs the main ferry service between Cape Cod and the islands, collects many millions of dollars a year that are turned over to major port communities.

There doesn't seem to be an interstate commerce argument against collecting from the New London ferries, since the ferry companies are clearly based in Connecticut and doing business here.

It's as simple as Rhode Island's move to collect tolls on out-of-state trucks. New London can have the virtual toll gantries for the marine highway to Long Island.

The public-spirited ferry companies should welcome this means to help provide revenue to their host city, but I doubt they would.

It seems unlikely to be embraced by a city mayor running for re-election with campaign assistance from the lobbyist that represents the ferry companies. I'd love to be wrong about that.

Maybe it's a good question for the mayor at the next campaign event: Would you support the General Assembly passing legislation that would allow New London to collect fees from ferry passengers who use the city to embark and disembark? Will you lobby lawmakers to make it happen?

Those should be easy answers, right?

This is the opinion of David Colllins.

d.collins@theday.com

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