January 10, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 9:32 am

State's Ports Not Ready For 2014 Shipping Boom

Judi Sheiffele, executive director of Port of New Haven, and William Gash, executive director of the Connecticut Maritime Coalition Inc., see better days ahead at the Port of New Haven, the busiest port in Connecticut.
The Port of New Haven, Connecticut's busiest port, lacks the channel depth and the facilities to handle container ships.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Jones Act will be an impediment to domestic shipping in Connecticut.

A massive shipping boom will explode on the East Coast in 2014 when the Panama Canal expansion is complete, and Connecticut's three deepwater ports are not ready in the slightest.

The lack of a state port authority or even an agency looking out for port interests leaves Connecticut ill prepared to deal with major issues such as dredging, domestic water shipping, rail and road access, and international marketing. This leaves the state — one of only 12 in the nation with more than two deepwater ports — unable to exploit its strategic position between New York and Boston, not to mention serving its own needs for energy supply and international trade.

When Gov. Dan Malloy was campaigning for office, he proposed creating a statewide agency to coordinate the efforts of the New Haven, Bridgeport and New London deepwater ports and lobby on the national and international platforms to make Connecticut a vibrant seaport state. Vibrant ports could be a powerful economic engine generating jobs. But with the state running a $3.5 billion budget deficit, Malloy will have a difficult time bring his port plans to fruition in the next two years, particularly for multi-million port improvement projects.

"The value of having a statewide port authority is having someone to look at the big picture," said Judi Sheiffele, executive director of the New Haven Port Authority. "It takes someone at the state level to talk to other states."

With the right infrastructure improvements to Connecticut's ports, the $5-billion state maritime industry could see a 50 percent increase in business by 2020, according to the Connecticut Maritime Coalition; but without a state port authority, those improvement will be hard to come by.

In 2014, the Panama Canal Authority will complete the addition of a third lane to accommodate ships triple the size of the canal's current capacity.

Because ocean shipping is the cheapest form of transportation, suppliers that would have delivered to America's West Coast ports and shipped by truck or rail across country will instead travel through the canal directly to the population centers on the Gulf and East coasts. A bonus is they can avoid West Coast ports that have been plagued by problems with their labor force, said Tim Feemster, national director of global logistics for California-based Grubb & Ellis advisors.

The expectation calls for a drastic increase in the amount of vessels docking on the East Coast from China, which ships about one-third of the world's containers. Vessels departing from the Far East to America's East Coast already constitute the greatest percentage of vessels traveling through the Panama Canal.

To prepare for the expected doubling of trade volumes by 2020, ports along the East and Gulf coasts are upgrading their facilities to handle bigger ships. The New York/New Jersey port is spending $3 billion on its infrastructure, including adding another container terminal. The Boston port is dredging for deeper shipping channels, buying land for more storage and adding more cranes to load and unload ships faster. The Port of Providence in Rhode Island got a $10.5 million federal grant for newer cranes.

Twenty states along the East and Gulf coasts — including Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — have signed agreements with the Panama Canal Authority to make sure they are included in any marketing efforts for the expansion.

"It gives you a great deal more opportunity than you ever had before," said Mike Leone, maritime director of the Massachusetts Port Authority.

Connecticut, meanwhile, has done nothing.

This state's first issue is that the shipping channels are too shallow. The Bridgeport port hasn't been dredged since 1964. New Haven was dredged in 2004, but the city port authority is calling for another dredging, this time to 42 feet to accommodate larger ships than its current 35-foot depth allows. The New London shipping channel is maintained by the U.S. Department of Defense because of the submarine base in Groton, but the local port authority was reactivated only recently and operates only as a planning agency.

Today, no Connecticut port is deep enough with adequate facilities to handle a container ship, nor is any set up to handle the larger volumes. That could change.

The New Haven port, for example, wants to reconstruct nearby Waterfront Street for better road access; expand its petroleum pipelines; and have direct rail access to the terminal. To pay for it, the port wanted to apply for federal stimulus funds under the TIGER program, but the local authority couldn't get support from anyone on the state level, Sheiffele said.

"We have a lot of issues that we have to work through, and a state authority is certainly needed," said William Gash, executive director of the Connecticut Maritime Coalition. "Each of our ports has its own strengths, and they can be marketed in that way."

Among the nation's ports, those at New Haven, Bridgeport and the shallow-water Stamford ranked Nos. 44, 72 and 142 in 2009 trade, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.

New Haven did more than 10.1 million tons in trade — making it the third busiest port in New England — compared to Bridgeport's 4.6 million and Stamford's 0.7 million. By comparison, Boston handled 20.5 million tons while New York/New Jersey did 144.7 million.

Without being able to accommodate container ships, the three Connecticut ports rely on processing raw materials on and off tankers. Close to 80 percent of handled cargo is petroleum, and materials such as lumber, sand, salts, scrap metal, cement, fabricated metals and food and farm products make up the other 20 percent.

Because the Connecticut ports are too shallow, large tanker ships delivering petroleum to the state can't dock at the ports, leaving them to transfer the liquid to smaller ships or unload part of their cargo before venturing into the shallower waters. Both result in increases to the cost of heating oil and gasoline.

Having deeper ports would help bring the cost of energy down by eliminating this extra tasks, not to mention the economies of scale coming from servicing larger tankers, said Don Frost, principal at Fairfield transportation consultant D.B. Frost & Associates.

If the state dredging issue is not addressed in the next 20 years, the Connecticut Maritime Coalition estimates the state will suffer a $1.5 billion loss in business output and more than 10,000 marine-related jobs. This includes $101 million in local, state and federal tax revenues.

If tankers have to start avoiding Connecticut ports altogether, gasoline and heating oil will have to be brought into the state by truck, putting up to 1 million more trucks on I-95 annually, according to the Connecticut Maritime Coalition.

But to move from simply handling tankers to container ships means not only deeper ports but also having adequate space on the land for the containers, something all three Connecticut ports need to work on, Frost said. Connecticut also needs equipment to load and unload containers and onsite rail access with nearby road access to deliver the shipments.

When the larger container ships start passing through the Panama Canal in 2014, they will head directly to the population hubs with large ports such as Boston and New York. Ports like New Haven — if upgraded — could step in as satellite ports to service the displaced smaller vessels, Sheiffele said.

Connecticut also has the opportunity to play a vital role in the Deep Blue Highway, a marine alternative to Interstate 95. Under the proposed plan to get trucks off the I-95 corridor, containers would be placed on barges and shipped up the East Coast to ports such as Bridgeport and New Haven.

That proposal has its own issues with the cost of additional handling and the logistics over whether it is useful and timely to barge goods to Bridgeport or New Haven to put them on trucks destined for somewhere else.

"Why would you go through a Connecticut port when we are really just a pass-through state?" Frost said.

While New Haven and Bridgeport might be less than appealing for domestic waterway shipping, Frost said New London is better positioned than even the New York/New Jersey port to service eastern Long Island, and Connecticut should take greater strides to up that trade.

To get the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers to dredge Connecticut's ports deeper and more frequently; to get adequate upgrades to the state ports' facilities for tankers and container ships, the state needs more than just three local port authorities lobbying for attention and state and federal funding, Sheiffele said.

"We are at a perfect time in Connecticut right now to look at the bigger picture," Sheiffele said. "Having a statewide organization looking out for our ports has to be part of that."

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