NORWALK, Conn. — A newly-designed catamaran, capable of transporting 20,000 pounds of cargo and 50 people, will soon shuttle between Norwalk and Long Island, as well as along the Connecticut coast, in a federally supported program to reduce highway congestion.
“We’re about to embark on what I would tell you is the first time this has happened in Norwalk Harbor, because it’s easy to say that because it’s the first time it’s happened nationally,” Bob Kunkel of Harbor Harvest on Wednesday told the Harbor Management Commission. “We are part of what’s called the Federal Marine Highway Project.”
“MARAD’s Marine Highway Program has one major goal: expand the use of America’s navigable waters,” the Marine Administration states on its website. Kunkel mentioned that a ferry system is possible in the future. Manresa Island might be used as a location for the blossoming business, he said.
Kunkel’s effort has breezed to a $1.8 million grant from the federal government, according to Kunkel. “Because of that, this harbor will no longer be looked at as a specific recreational boating area, but as a harbor with a marine highway project that needs to be developed, dredged and kept open in order to do with it.”
Kunkel is designer and builder of the Maritime Aquarium hybrid vessel. He’s been in shipping and shipbuilding for 40 years around the world, and was chairman of the Short Sea Shipping Cooperative Program for 10 years, he said.
“So for 10 years now, we’ve been trying to make this happen by taking trucks off the I-95 card or reducing congestion. One of the things that we found during that 10 years is it’s very difficult to compete with a truck,” he said.
If fuel prices are high, a boat can compete, he said. “The program that we’re go into introduce to you here is looking at the less-than-full load trucking and refrigerated cargo. And we found that the … small farms and artists and products in Connecticut and Long Island are actually using FedEx and UPS to move their products. So this vessel that we’re putting into program here is very competitive, and we expect it to be profitable.”
It takes nine to 12 hours to truck cargo from Connecticut to Long Island, but 45-60 minutes to cross Long Island Sound, he said. Plus, new drones can start delivering products before the boat even docks.
“We’re building the first commercial aircraft carrier. So what we’ll do is actually carry our cargo, carry drones on board,” Kunkel reported.
We’re talking about a 65-foot catamaran with 18-foot breadth which when fully loaded with 50 passengers and 20,000 pounds of cargo draws three foot-eight inches. It’s powered by lithium batteries and there’s no discharge, no environmental impact, according to Kunkel.
“She’s just about to go anywhere. It’s taken us probably close to five or six years to do this design and make it as applicable as possible in any geographical area,” and, “We’re in the second round of our investment, the first boat will be an operation next week,” he said. “The second boat will be contracted and built with the $1.8 million grant from MARAD. So, we’ll have two boats that will be operating by 2020.”
The boat is docking at Talmadge Brothers oyster company at 132 Water St., when the oyster boats are out, according to Kunkel. It goes to Huntington, N.Y., where a charging station has been built and will be operational next week.
“We’re moving foreign products produce fresh meat pork, from about 15 different companies that have signed on to the program. And that is coming from Connecticut into Long Island from Long Island to Connecticut, we’re dealing with the wine industry, craft beer, and potatoes and other produce that’s over on Long Island,” he said.
The boat has been in Norwalk Harbor twice, and Gov. Ned Lamont and his staff have been out for a tour, he said. “We had a five hour private meeting with Gov. Lamont and (Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC) Board Co-Chair) Indra Nooyi. His staff is looking at how to bring business back into Connecticut, and we’re looking at using the waterfront to do that.”
Fishing boats are being aced out on Connecticut’s Gold Coast in favor of apartments and condominiums, he explained. “One of the projects we’re working with Gov. Lamont is to look at property that has either been underdeveloped or forgotten on the coast, and to bring manufacturing into that property, and then have the hybrids … deliver the products outside of trucking. So, Manresa Island is one of the places that we’ve looked at with the governor. His staff is very interested how it’s going to work.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) “has used the video tape from the boat in his legislation in Washington,” Kunkel said. “So as soon as we get Fox News on and the boat’s moving cargo, then we’ll start to work with the governor’s office of what the next steps are.”
Next is an effort to get passenger cars off the roads.
“Ferry projects in Long Island Sound have been discussed for many, many years. But the ferry business has changed quite a bit around the country,” Kunkel said, attributing that to Millennials who use Uber or Lyft or rental scooters, who won’t clog area highways if they arrive by ferry. “So what we’re looking to do is number one, develop a ferry service from Stamford down into the Financial District of New York City. And then we’re looking at more or less a Metro North parallel to be moving from New Haven down to Norwalk, Bridgeport, Stamford, and then back again.”
The trip to NYC will be 15 to 20 minutes longer than Metro North but, “It’ll be operated more like a business airline,” with Internet, television and food available, and people will be able to get to work right away, according to Kunkle.
The project is “the government’s marine highway darling right now. We can really do no wrong,” and, “It’s interesting to note that we’ve kind of broken down a lot of Chinese walls,” he said. “So we are the first vessel to be permitted by both Connecticut and New York to carry alcoholic beverages on the water across state lines since prohibition. …my Irish grandfather used to run rum into Norwalk with Lucky Luciano. So I’m kind of continuing the tradition, but I’m trying to do it legally.”