State Pier could become hub for smaller cargo ships, says federal maritime head
New London — The head of the federal Maritime Administration made a short visit to State Pier on Monday, saying the city's deepwater port could be a hub for smaller shippers as "gateway ports" such as New York focus on container ships.
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, who was appointed by President Donald Trump to be the federal Maritime Administrator and sworn in on Aug. 8, 2017, stopped at the state-owned facility as part of a visit to southeastern Connecticut with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.
Buzby also visited other entities that have received funding from the Maritime Administration such as the Mystic Seaport, which has received several Maritime Heritage Grants, and Cross Sound Ferry, which received a $500,000 grant through the administration's Marine Highway program for infrastructure improvements, including installing a new ferry ramp to improve the flow of traffic at the ferry terminal.
Containerized cargo coming into bigger ports such as New York City is pushing out other cargo, such as break bulk material or project cargo such as wind energy components, to ports such as New London, Buzby said, as he stood at the end of State Pier next to piles of lumber.
In addition to lumber, salt and steel are among the most common goods being handled at New London's port.
These smaller shippers are getting "pushed away to the side," Buzby said. So New London has to figure out what cargo flowing out of these bigger ports makes sense to "grab onto."
"They're flowing to some of these other ports, like potentially here, where they are the top dog customer," he said. "They get the service. They get paid attention to. They get the berth. They don't have to wait. They get the small town handling. It's them first."
Buzby asked port officials about the potential for goods coming by ship into New London to be taken by rail to "inland" ports, rural areas with cheap land that could be used as warehouse space, reducing the amount of cargo that would need to be transported by truck. That idea is included in the five-year strategic plan unveiled recently by the Connecticut Port Authority, which is responsible for marketing the state's maritime economy.
Courtney said an $8.3 million federal grant awarded in 2014 to upgrade the Connecticut portion of the New England Central Rail corridor will be a "force multiplier." The rail line connects to State Pier, and the upgrades will allow for heavier loads of cargo to be carried by rail from the port north, as far as the border between Vermont and Canada.
"Intermodal connection is a selling point," Courtney said.
Mayor Michael Passero mentioned to Buzby the prospect of New London becoming a hub for the burgeoning offshore wind industry. The city is marketing the 12-acre Thames River Apartments complex on Crystal Avenue, which for decades housed low-income families, as an area that could be developed in conjunction with port activity.
In less than two weeks, the port authority will have responses to its request for proposals to run pier operations. It anticipates announcing its selection of a firm in mid-September.
The port authority is waiting to invest $15 million in state funding slated for pier improvements until a port operator is chosen so it can leverage the funding. The next operator is also expected to make an investment, and that will be discussed as part of contract negotiations, port authority's board Chairman Scott Bates told Buzby.