New port authority director juggling politics, guarding boundaries | Crain's Connecticut

New port authority director juggling politics, guarding boundaries

  • The Port of New London is at the center of a dredging dispute between Connecticut and New York related to dredging in Long Island Sound. | James Mosher/Crain's Connecticut

    The Port of New London is at the center of a dredging dispute between Connecticut and New York related to dredging in Long Island Sound. | James Mosher/Crain's Connecticut

  • The Port of New London is at the center of a dredging dispute between Connecticut and New York related to dredging in Long Island Sound. | James Mosher/Crain's Connecticut

    The Port of New London is at the center of a dredging dispute between Connecticut and New York related to dredging in Long Island Sound. | James Mosher/Crain's Connecticut

  • The Port of New London is at the center of a dredging dispute between Connecticut and New York related to dredging in Long Island Sound. | James Mosher/Crain's Connecticut

    The Port of New London is at the center of a dredging dispute between Connecticut and New York related to dredging in Long Island Sound. | James Mosher/Crain's Connecticut

  • Darien-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc., whose assets include the New England Central Railroad that serves the Port of New London, praised Connecticut’s port-related progress. |  Photo by Robert Reynolds courtesy of Genesee and Wyoming Inc.

    Darien-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc., whose assets include the New England Central Railroad that serves the Port of New London, praised Connecticut’s port-related progress. | Photo by Robert Reynolds courtesy of Genesee and Wyoming Inc.

The executive director of the new Connecticut Port Authority is a little more than a month into his job and already is juggling a political hot potato with powerful authorities in New York.

While looking to create stronger relationships with maritime elements in Connecticut’s much larger neighbor, Evan Matthews says Connecticut should protect its turf in a dispute with New York over dredging in Long Island Sound.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s review of potential sites in the eastern part of the waterway has drawn formal opposition from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Matthews and other leaders in Connecticut fired back, saying New York’s protest of sites in Connecticut waters is inappropriate.

“Connecticut supports the site being in Connecticut waters,” Matthews said. “We want it to be under Connecticut law and Connecticut environmental protection regulations. This is a Connecticut issue.”

Matthews, who began his $150,000-a-year job on Sept. 19, said he wants to build relationships with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but the dredging dispute is not one between port agency administrators, he said.

“You can’t get to Connecticut waters without going through New York’s waters so having a good relationship with New York is important,” Matthews said. “But New York is overstepping. I don’t know if it’s even intentional. Connecticut has to guard its interests and New York has to guard its interests.”

New York is looking to end all open water dumping in Long Island Sound, according to Cuomo’s office.

“The EPA’s proposal not only poses a major threat to this ecologically vital habitat, but impedes our progress in ending open water dumping in Long Island’s waters once and for all,” the office said in a written statement. “(New York) is committed to ensuring the Sound remains a viable source of economic and tourist activity and we will continue to take any action necessary to preserve this precious jewel for generations to come.”

Matthews and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd, both say the Connecticut economy, particularly that of New London County, would suffer major financial hardship if the EPA’s expected decision is thwarted. Costs of dredging and associated transportation would “skyrocket,” the congressman said.

Submarine maker Electric Boat Corp. and the commander of the Navy submarine station, both based in Groton, have sent letters to the EPA supporting Connecticut’s position. Rhode Island lawmakers collaborated with Connecticut counterparts in sending a joint letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who was once Connecticut’s environmental protection commissioner.

“What New York is threatening is not helpful to the entire region,” Courtney said in an interview with Crain’s Connecticut.

The EPA declined to comment on possible litigation out of New York, spokesman Dave Deegan said, citing agency policy.

“EPA has worked with federal, state, and local agencies to develop its proposal,” the agency said in a statement. “The EPA has not made a final decision but we believe the proposal strikes an appropriate balance between the need for dredging to maintain safe and efficient navigation, and our desired outcome to restore and protect Long Island Sound.”

Courtney said he expects an EPA decision in the near future.

At the helm of port business

While brass in Connecticut and New York continue their scuffle, Matthews is working to create the Connecticut Port Authority’s administrative foundation.

At present he is the authority’s only official employee, he said, working with two people on loan from the state Department of Transportation. He is touring Connecticut’s three deep-water ports – Bridgeport, New Haven and New London – with a visit to Bridgeport planned for this week. Smaller waterways are also on his agenda in the form of a small harbor improvement program.

“We will be helping develop small harbors as well as doing studies on the deep-water ports,” Matthews said.

He has been tasked with developing a strategic plan to increase cargo volumes moving through the ports as well as strengthening maritime policies.

This involves creating a branding campaign as well as considering capital projects. Maintenance dredging of the Housatonic River, the Mianus River and Old Saybrook’s North Cove are also matters before Matthews and the authority’s 15-member board of directors. Board chair Scott Bates is a New London native who was Virginia’s secretary of state and worked as a senior policy advisor to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee.

Matthews recently attended the American Association of Port Authorities meeting in New Orleans. Thanks to the authority’s creation through legislation in 2014 and Matthews’ subsequent appointment by the board, this is the first time all of Connecticut is being represented at these conferences and accessing their myriad networking opportunities, the director said.

“It’s a very exciting time for me and the maritime industries in Connecticut,” Matthews said.

Port business is big business

Darien-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc., whose assets include the New England Central Railroad that serves the Port of New London, praised Connecticut’s port-related progress. An $8.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation helped improve 55 miles of track connecting to the Port of New London. State and private money, including some from Genesee & Wyoming, are to be part of the $12.8 million track upgrade.

“The state of Connecticut’s positive investment in rail infrastructure, combined with a growing focus on growing port cargos through its newly formed port authority, is a positive step for Connecticut industries and transportation providers across all modes,” Ed Foley, vice president of marketing and sales for Genesee & Wyoming’s Northeast Region, said in a statement. “The benefit of having modal optionality and flexibility will help grow the economy by creating further investments in transportation infrastructure and hopefully attract more business to the state. That would be good for our business, the ports and the state of Connecticut.”

The Port of New Haven is home to seven private terminals. The port authority will do well if it interfaces with private operators and strategically injects state resources to create value, said Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut. The chamber’s region includes the Port of New London as well as the Electric Boat shipyard and the Navy submarine base.

Better coordination and overall improvement of the air transport sector fostered by the creation of the Connecticut Airport Authority five years ago is a major reason the state is establishing something similar in the maritime sector, he said.

“Private/public partnerships is the way to go for the state wherever and whenever possible,” Sheridan said.

‘Experience, knowledge, and ambition’

Matthews comes to Connecticut with experience as port director at the Quonset Development Corp. in Rhode Island. He was also the grant and trade policy analyst at the Port of Seattle, and taught logistics and maritime courses at the University of Rhode Island as an adjunct professor.

Catherine Smith, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, chaired the subcommittee that reviewed candidates for the director position over several months.

“Ultimately, the subcommittee, and then the full board of directors, unanimously agreed that Evan (Matthews) has the experience, knowledge, and ambition to strengthen our ports and harbors and generate economic activity for our state,” said Smith, who also is the port authority board’s vice chair. “He has a clear understanding of the growth opportunities for Connecticut and we are very excited to see him take over this important role.”

Matthews said his work is guided by the goal of helping Connecticut make it all the way back from the Great Recession, especially the state’s job market.

“There are many great companies operating along Connecticut’s coastline and ports, some for generations,” Matthews said. “I’m looking forward … to helping make our ports and commercial waterfronts work for all of Connecticut.”

October 27, 2016 - 4:41pm