When the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan was new, in the 1840s, New London harbor was a floating forest of topmasts, the second largest whaling port in the country. As the wonderfully restored wooden whaler set sail from New London this past weekend, there was work afoot to bring more commerce — but not whale blubber — back to the seaport still called the Whaling City.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed legislation Monday creating a Connecticut Port Authority, a quasi-public agency that will market and coordinate the development of the state's ports and maritime economy. The new agency, which will begin operation in 2015, will go after more export business and private investment at the state's three deepwater ports in New London, New Haven and Bridgeport.
The legislation is based on an extensive study of the deepwater ports completed in late 2012. The study concluded that the state could not realistically build a major container port — that ship has sailed, so to speak — but could enhance the maritime business it already has, such as liquid petroleum products, and go after niche cargoes such as exporting wood pellets from New London and scrap metal from New Haven.
The study also recommends the state "continually seek ways to protect and promote the viability of private ferry services" that operate from New London and Bridgeport. And so it should. The report cites federal estimates of about 18 cents saved for every mile of freight moved on water instead of on highway, plus a benefit of 4 to 6 cents per mile of reduced passenger travel.
With I-95 highly congested and shoreline rail service struggling with ancient bridges and other equipment in need of repair, it would certainly help if ferries could take more of the load.
Connecticut's ports, like its rail lines, received only intermittent government attention over the past half-century or so, and like the rail lines are in need of more attention. The ports have seen imports drop in recent years, in part due to the recession and the move away from coal. The Port Authority, which will have input from the maritime industry as it prepares its business plan, could be the way to return the ports to their glory days and give the state a more balanced transportation system.