Two words – container port – don’t appear in the six major findings and recommendations of a Joint Legislative Commission that has spent nearly three years on the study of Rhode Island ports.
But while a container port – the failed economic development proposal of former Gov. Donald Carcieri – is not mentioned, the commission concluded there are opportunities to expand the maritime industry that presently employs more than 3,600 people and generates more than $320 million annually in economic activity. And to do that, the commission co-chaired by Senator William Walaska and Representative Deborah Ruggiero identified a “recurring theme” for the need “for enhanced coordination and greater cooperation among all governmental and non-governmental port facility stake holders.”
The commission found that with proper development, opportunities offered by the state’s ports could result in 1,000 new jobs, $70 million in personal income, $127 million in business revenue and $8.1 million in state and local tax revenues in the near future.
That had the attention of General Assembly leaders.
Referencing the additional jobs that were the subject of a report last year, Senate President M. Theresa Paiva Weed said, “This is very exciting in itself, yet it’s just a piece of what we hope to achieve. Maritime economic development is about maintaining the infrastructure and assets that are in place, which are considerable.”
House Speaker Gordon Fox called maritime industries extremely important, adding “every move we make is about jobs.”
All it takes is a look at a map to see what has some commission members excited.
Walaska noted that produce going to Wal-Mart distribution centers in Utica and Syracuse, N.Y., comes into ports other than Rhode Island even though Ocean State ports are closer.
In an interview prior to the commission’s unanimous approval of the report Tuesday evening, Walaska stressed the importance of retaining the commercial designation of existing waterways so as not to restrict future development, an ombudsman for ports and the marketing of the state’s maritime asserts. He said that during its study, the commission found cooperation lacking between the Ports of Providence and Davisville, even at the risk of losing federal grants and potential customers. He noted that to the commission’s amazement, they found Rhode Island had been overlooked in a map of ports capable of accommodating barges or “short sea shipping.”
The report concludes “it is extremely important” that the U.S. Maritime Administration, in developing its marine highway initiative, put the ports of Rhode Island on the map and recommends legislative support of a petition to the U.S. Department of Transportation to accomplish that.
That finding has some industry representatives perplexed as the Port of Davisville is defined on maps and, in fact, was the recipient of a $22 million federal grant about two years ago.
Those funds are being used to acquire a crane to be delivered later this year from Europe, according to David Preston, spokesperson for the Quonset Development Corporation. The crane will enable the port to offload containers from short sea barges. It offers the potential for the port to handle 22,000 containers annually, said Preston.
The commission also looked into dredging, discovering that Davisville has never received federal funds for dredging, thereby exempting it from payment of Harbor Maintenance Taxes and giving it a “substantial competitive advantage” over all other East Coast ports. The commission found the absence of the tax was a major factor in VW of North America’s decision to relocate from Boston to Davisville about nine years ago. The absence of the tax saves $31.25 on every $25,000 vehicle brought in through the port. Davisville is the eighth largest port in the country for the import of motor vehicles. It is recommended that dredging be done at Davisville, but that the work is undertaken by the state so that the port can maintain its tax-exempt status.
Walaska underscored the need for the state to be proactive about dredging and prepared to dispose of dredge spoils. Presently, spoils not suitable for beach replenishment and other land uses, or for offshore disposal, are deposited in the Providence River in cells. The cells are created by removing the upper layers of contaminated riverbed, and then scooping away the “clean” earth to create a submarine hole called a CAD [confined aquatic disposal] cell. The cell is then filled with spoils that can’t be disposed of by other methods. The existing cells are close to being filled and Walaska said it’s time to get prepared for the future.
Major recommendations of the report are:
-- That the commission’s efforts become an integral part of the governor’s and Economic Development Corporation’s agenda through the creation of a Governor’s Port Economic Policy Ombudsperson charged with port economic policy implementation so that the state can move forward toward creating more than 1,000 new maritime related jobs.
-- It is critical to address the lack of coordination between various governmental and non-governmental stakeholders with respect to marketing and infrastructure development of the state’s ports, related facilities and maritime trade.
-- Development of a “Marine Highway System” hub(s) in Rhode Island in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
-- Explore public/private partnership opportunities to further infrastructure investment and business development of Davisville.
-- Formulation and execution of a non-federal funding dredging project for Davisville, as well as funding for the permitting of new CAD cell sites in the Providence River.
-- Revision of Rhode Island’s Statewide Master Guide Plan in order to specifically identify and maintain vital water dependent commercial operations and ensure the viability of Rhode Island’s marine economy.
The commission said that during the past six decades, the state’s port and marine activity had fallen well behind others along the Atlantic coast. The commission projects that full development in several identified areas – auto import/export, offshore wind farms, container feeder and break bulk – could result in significant growth in new jobs and business and state/local tax revenue.