Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Container ports along the Connecticut?

I've sent the following story to a number of local elected officials and business leaders to see what they think of the idea. What do you think?

Thirty years ago, the Sunday Republican ran a lengthy piece written by a
young Springfield attorney about a public works project that could
dramatically improve the transportation infrastructure for Springfield, West
Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee. His idea did gain some political support
and did progress to a certain point before it was killed.

He now believes the time is right to reconsider it.

Charles Ryan IV, the eldest son of the former Springfield mayor, had
suggested establishing a container port on the Connecticut River. The river
would have had to have been dredged in certain locations and the lock
systems at Windsor Locks would have had to undergo modifications. The result
would have been a river that could support barge traffic from the Long
Island Sound to Holyoke.

The improvements to the river would then allow private commercial
development along its banks to flourish, in Ryan’s vision.

A container port here in the Greater Springfield area, he contended then
and now, would be the perfect addition to the freight rail yards in West
Springfield, the Westover civilian airport in Chicopee and the intersections
of Interstate 91 and the Massachusetts Turnpike.

What stopped the project from moving forward was an evaluation in 1986
that assessed the economic potential versus the costs. The conclusion was
that the cost didn’t justify the outcome,
Local industrial development officials disagreed then and Ryan disagrees
with the report to this day.

Ryan explained to Reminder Publications that in light of the Obama
Administration’s efforts to provide jobs while improving the nation’s
infrastructure, this project should receive reconsideration. He said it
would provide construction jobs and then enduring private sector employment.

He believes that Springfield and other communities have not received the
level of economic development dollars and projects as other parts of the
state or nation.

What makes the project even more attractive in 2009 is the hydroelectric
generating facility that had been part of the original proposal, Ryan
asserted. In 1990 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rated the
potential of such a facility at 90 megawatts.

Ryan recalled that he had been speaking with his father and uncle when
he thought of the idea. While in Law School at Boston College, he visited
the Army Corps of Engineers office in Waltham where he was told a similar
plan had been developed during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt
but was never implemented.

According to a report commissioned by the Army Corps of Engineers the
dredging of the river and construction of locks and dams in Hartford and
Enfield, Conn., had been authorized in 1930 and then again in 1935, but none
of this work was undertaken.

The Connecticut River is navigable from Long Island Sound to just north
of Hartford, where modern navigation is prevented by the locks at Windsor
Locks, Conn. The locks were developed in 1829 to allow river traffic to
travel around the Enfield Rapids. With the advent of railroads in the 1840s,
Ryan said, the locks were used less and weren’t properly maintained.

To build a container port facility in Hampden County, Ryan’s plan called
for the following elements:
• The redesign of the lock system to pass through the Enfield (Conn.) rapids
• As part of that lock system update, the construction of a dam with a
hydroelectric generation system and a fish lift system
• The dredging of the river north of the lock system to ensure the proper

Ryan’s 1979 opinion piece and his subsequent one-man campaign to
generate support were successful, but perhaps part of that attention came
from the times. William L. Putnam, the founder and owner of WWLP, wrote Ryan
about the project describing it as “the greatest economic development idea
in my lifetime.”

Ryan noted in 1983 there had been considerable attention placed on the
condition of the Connecticut River. There had been a successful fight
opposing a plan from the Metropolitan District Commission to divert water
from the river to augment Boston’s water supply. By 1983, about $800 million
had been spent to clean up the river’s pollution. Springfield had built
Riverfront Park and there were increasing numbers of shad and salmon
returning to the river.

Congressman Edward Boland supported the project, Ryan said, and assisted
in securing the attention of the Army Corps of Engineers in compiling an
evaluation released in January 1986. He said that Boland’s successor,
Congressman Richard Neal, had also shown support, but that Senators John
Kerry and Edward Kennedy had not been involved.

Essentially the evaluation had to estimate how much economic activity
would be generated by having the potential of barge traffic on the river
versus the costs of the project.

The report concluded, “The total cost of the project, if it were to be
built today exclusive of real estate, terminal facilities and mitigation, is
estimated at $335 million with annual costs estimated to be at $32 million.
Total project annual benefits amount to $27 million resulting in a benefit
to cost ratio (BCR) of 0.7 to 1. Specific navigation annual costs and
benefits are estimated at $12 million and $6 million respectively yielding a
BCR of 0.5 to 1. Based on the above findings, navigation as a project
purpose is not economically justified.”

Adjusted for inflation, the cost of the project today would be
approximately $670 million. The Boston Globe reported in 2008 the final cost
of the Big Dig would be $22 billion.

Ryan did not accept the report’s findings. In a rebuttal, he wrote,
“Specifically the study fails to project commercial navigation as regards
bulk, container or other modes for export or import, virtually whatsoever;
as the study’s models were predicated on all shipments resulting in empty
backhauls. This effectively negates any realistic appraisal of bulk or
container shuttle service, while doubling the study’s ‘costs.’”

He was not alone in fighting the report’s methodology. Earl Weller, the
chair of the Mayor’s Industrial Development Advisory Committee in Holyoke,
wrote the Army Corps of Engineers in May 1986, stating, “However, the
Committee is concerned that some contributing costs savings or benefits were
either understated or ignored in your analytical work. For example, it
appears that the projections of the job retention and producing effects of
the project were extremely conservative. Also there is no accounting in the
study for potential flood control savings and benefits resulting from a
deeper river bed.”

Weller asked for a careful reconsideration of the project and despite
additional lobbying from Ryan, it never came.

In the second part of this story, local political and economic
development leaders will be asked to look at this project from today’s

© 2009 Gordon Michael Dobbs


Elizabeth said...

Did you see that they mentioned your story in last week's Valley Advocate?

Jim said...

The pictures I have seen of modern container ships would raise a huge problem. The many bridges over the Connecticut River would never accommodate those tall container ships.