New Haven, Bridgeport compete for barge dollars



Barges? Bridgeport and New Haven actually do need some “stinking barges.”

Both cities are seeking their share of the up to $7 million in state bond funds to develop a feeder barge system. On Tuesday, the state Transportation Strategy Board asked the Connecticut Department of Transportation for a more detailed analysis of the two proposals, but an impatient General Assembly may make the decision itself.

And funding may not be granted even after a final decision is made.

The feeder system would connect ports in the Long Island Sound to ports in New York and New Jersey, with the goal of reducing road traffic congestion, improving air quality and promoting economic development. Each barge could carry the same number of containers as 100 to 380 trucks, according to a report by the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research.

The Transportation Strategy Board was asked to decide which site or sites should receive state funding. Robert Hammersley, who is on staff at the board, stressed that the group has not yet taken a position on either proposal and will work on the issue again in May, taking whatever action it sees fit.

For now, the board has asked the Connecticut Department of Transportation to perform a more thorough detailed analysis of the proposals. Michael Meotti, a Transportation Strategy Board member, said this analysis, which should take six weeks, will examine freight volume and interconnections between the port connections and the highway system.

Meotti said Bridgeport claimed it could proceed with its proposal more quickly than New Haven, but he personally favors the New Haven site because it is further east than Bridgeport and would allow trucks to bypass more roadways.

“You can’t dispute the geography,” Meotti said. “But its proposals may not be able to work.”

While the Transportation Strategy Board turned turned the problem over to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, the General Assembly’s transportation committee reported legislation out of committee to initially grant funding to Bridgeport. State representative Jacqueline Cocco of Bridgeport, the co-chairwoman of the committee, said it did not make sense to start working on both markets at once but said she would like to see the barge system expanded to both New Haven and New London if it worked in Bridgeport. The only way truck traffic will be significantly reduced is if more than one Connecticut port is used, she said.

New Haven is not the right location to start the barge system, Cocco said, because it will cost more, barge contents will have to be driven to storage locations, and construction on the Quinnipiac Bridge may interfere with New Haven’s plan.

“I certainly believe that [the legislation is] going to go forward as its written,” Cocco said.

State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, who represents New Haven, agreed with Cocco that both cities ports are “underdeveloped and underutilized.” But he said the New Haven proposal will take more traffic off the roads.

New Haven Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez criticized what he called a “highly politicized” process. While he said he had no problem with Bridgeport also operating a barge system, he said that any barge landing in Bridgeport would just load its cargo onto trucks to New Haven.

“Ours is faster, bigger, and relies on companies and warehouses that already exist,” Fernandez said.

There is only a $2 million gap before New Haven could proceed with its plans, Fernandez said.

Looney said the Transportation Strategy Board could influence the legislature’s decision if it took a strong position on the matter but the legislature would probably make the ultimate choice. He predicted that the matter will be resolved by June 4, when the General Assembly adjourns.

But even then the matter will not be entirely resolved. The state’s fiscal crisis or a detailed analysis of the proposal may result in neither proposal receiving funding, Meotti said. Either Gov. John G. Rowland or the state’s Office of Policy and Management could decide to cancel the entire idea.

“There have been some indications that this project may never make it,” Meotti said.

The State Bond Commission, which must give final approval of the allocation of funds, will take up the issue in the fall at the earliest, Meotti said.

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