U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman endorsed the Port and Maritime Security Act, currently before the Senate, during a joint press conference with New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. at the New Haven Harbor Monday.

Fighting a cold, the former vice presidential candidate outlined short- and long-term plans to improve security at the nation’s seaports and said that, although steps were taken immediately after Sept. 11, “a lot more needs to be done.” Lieberman supports the Senate version of a bill that would allot $145 million this fiscal year for 1,200 new customs inspectors and 300 new customs agents, as well as $74 million for grants and administrative expenses.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., also calls for the development of procedures and standards for maritime security and would establish a task force to examine possible vulnerability to terrorism.

“Probably most Americans do not know that 95 percent of [imports] arrive by ship,” Lieberman said. “Only 1 to 2 percent of containers are checked. — [T]hat’s a very scary situation.”

The senator added that the bill provides millions of dollars to improve “the infrastructure of waterfront security” and “push the U.S. borders back” by having cargo examined prior to its arrival in the United States. He also said that lack of communication between government agencies and the need for more expansive cargo-checking procedures have made the bill a priority.

“The issue of homeland security is so important, we can’t tolerate the kind of situation you have [here],” he said.

Taking a more general tone, Lieberman said the shipping industry could use technology in the future to screen containers without opening them and check them for explosives or narcotics. He praised a $1.9 million Department of Justice program that improves first response and preparedness for terrorist attacks and lauded the president’s proposed allocation of $11 billion for American border security.

Although measures to protect the New Haven Harbor have been ordered by city officials, some managers and workers at the port said they were willing to protect against terrorism but lacked leadership. Lieberman said the new bill would provide one authority to serve as a liaison among the U.S. Customs Service, the Coast Guard, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“There are at least three or more federal agencies, and they’re basically not talking to each other,” he said.

DeStefano added that current legislation provides funds to the states, not to municipalities.

“I think that the Senate bill sets a very important precedent,” Lieberman said, “because we recognize the creation of local — not state — port authorities.”

After Sept. 11, New Haven officials did take some initiative to protect against terrorism. The city closed two of the three gates in the harbor, placed a guard at the operating port, and increased patrols throughout the port.

Lieberman dismissed criticism that he has not spent enough time in Connecticut and has not been in public view in the state.

“My first responsibility is to the people of Connecticut,” he said.