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Water taxi service provider sought for river park

The search began last week for a company to run a water taxi this summer that would link tourist attractions on the two sides of the Thames River.

The steering committee for the proposed Thames River Heritage Park has issued a request for proposals, publishing a legal notice in The Day and posting the full proposal on the website of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments. The contract would be for three years, with an application deadline of March 13.

Issuing the proposal is a major step in the steering committee's efforts to get the park started, taking place in tandem with efforts to secure $100,000 in state funding for this year and other grant funds for future years to support the ferry service. The responses the committee receives from would-be operators will provide a lot of useful information to help the project move forward, Penny Parsekian, consultant working with the steering committee, said Thursday.

"We're going to find out what operators need to run this service, how much they would charge or whether they would need a subsidy to make it feasible," she said. "We really have a lot to learn from this process."

Earlier this month the legislature's Environment Committee heard testimony on a water taxi funding bill. Steering committee members also are seeking a meeting with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to secure his support for the park and water taxi, armed with a 100-page report by the Yale Urban Design Workshop describing the concept of the park and how to make it happen.

In September, the committee tested out the water taxi in a pilot run over two weekends. The service ferried about 1,000 passengers between Fort Trumbull State Park in New London to City Pier downtown, a 10-minute ride. Then it crossed the half-mile of river that separates New London and Groton to carry passengers to the foot of the path that leads to Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park. That leg took about six minutes, according to Parsekian.

The two state parks, the National Coast Guard Museum proposed to be located in downtown New London and the Submarine Force Museum in Groton comprise the four anchor sites of the park. The installation of a dock at the submarine museum is part of the park plans. A dozen smaller, independent sites within walking distance of the anchor sites along the river also would be included. The water taxi is considered a linchpin for the park, the unifying element that would pull together the various entities that have a common connection with the estuary.

"Today, the experience of visiting the different sites is uncoordinated," Stephen MacKenzie, executive director of Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region, said in written testimony on the water taxi funding bill. "By connecting the institutions and sites physically and programmatically, the whole will become greater than its individual parts. The structure provided by the creation of the heritage park will ensure the needed coordination, and the water taxi will get people out on the water so that they may understand the environment of, and the connection between the Thames River, New London and Groton. The water taxi is essential to the overall success of the park."

Last fall, the service operated free of charge. Whether a fee is charged this summer is yet to be decided, but a range of $2.50 to $5 per ride has been suggested, Parsekian said.

"We also discussed creating a passport that bundled the entrance fees to sites and the ferry or a season pass," she said in an email message.

Without the ferry, visitors are left to get to the various sites on their own. With little or no traffic, driving the mile and a half from Fort Trumbull to the Water Street Parking Garage downtown - across the street from the ferry landing - takes about six and half minutes. Along the way, visitors pass through a mix of urban scenes, from the vacant lots of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, empty and occupied buildings on Howard Street and then into the heart of the downtown along Bank Street.

Driving the 3.1 miles from downtown New London to Fort Griswold takes almost seven minutes, providing there are no traffic tie-ups. Crossing the river by car requires maneuvering over the Gold Star Bridge, a massive structure that can give the short trip the feel of a longer journey. Once across the river, finding the fort can be tricky, requiring visitors to negotiate a network of narrow residential streets. Visitors coming by ferry can walk a straight - though steep - path directly from the dock to the fort.

"The boat ride would be part of the park experience," Parsekian said. "When you see the way the water meets the land and the way the forts sit in relation to the river, you understand the whole geography."

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

More information

• The request for proposals for the water taxi can be found at: www.seccog.org, click on "Water Taxi RFP" on the home page.

• For information about the request for proposals, contact James Butler, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, at: office@seccog.org.

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