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A Bridge Over Troubled Waters in Long Island Sound - Marine Pilots MOA

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

According to the Connecticut Maritime Coalition (CMC), over 19 million short tons of cargo passed through its marine ports last year. Two million people rode its ferries and 850,000 vehicles were transported. The CMC, a non-profit, also boasts the combined commerce kept almost one million trucks off Connecticut roads. All of this sounds pretty good and it probably is. But, it’s a little like reporting a minor oil spill in terms of gallons, which the media likes to use because stating barrels is not nearly as dramatic. As important as they may be to the region, New Haven, New London, and Bridgeport will never be anything more than niche ports. All the statistics in the world can’t change these facts, and up until recently, all of this was a mere footnote that received little attention from state officials in Hartford.

CMC’s stated plan says to “strengthen relationships with neighboring states,” while asserting “the absence of a multi-state maritime network hampers the competitiveness of the maritime industry.” While CMC doesn’t speak for the State of Connecticut, their message remains consistent with the party line of the state’s multiple-maritime bureaucracies. The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) appears to be an integral part of this philosophy, and it’s highly unlikely that any of this will change in the near-term future.

In order to understand how Connecticut arrived where it is today in terms of pilot issues, it’s important to know where they’ve been. In the 1980’s, there were by some accounts, as many as 80 State licensed Pilots in Connecticut waters. However, Connecticut archives show that in 1986, there were 50 persons who held a Connecticut State Pilot license. Twelve trips through Long Island Sound, a Federal Pilot license, and a trip to the Superior Court was all it took to reach the Promised Land.

But, waiting in paradise were less than 400 ships and 900 total movements annually. And, so began “the competition days.” A reportedly ruthless environment prevailed, where multiple pilot boats and an ever-changing landscape of alliances made for exciting but less-than-cordial relationships between the operating Pilots. It was a wild ride; some made hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, others starved, and still others never even bothered to compete for the work. Predictably, by the mid-nineties, there were less than 40 Pilots. Today, the 17 remaining Pilots form the rotation system known as the MOA, and they are no friendly to one another than their predecessors were with each other, but they are much more business-savvy. Don Sheetz, a former Connecticut Pilot Commissioner, sums it up best; “They have been their own worst enemies.” And, he ought to know, because Sheetz served for almost nine years as the Chairman of the Connecticut Pilot Commission. Today, he is the Executive Vice President of Vanuatu Shipping Registry in New York.

According to Sheetz, the days of issuing a State Marine License to just anyone predate him, but he inherited a world of trouble from his predecessor. He said the primary goals of the past Connecticut State Pilot Commission was to provide for safe navigation in Long Island Sound and Connecticut ports, and to protect the marine environment. Sheetz was eager to speak to the MarEx about these issues facing the Pilots today, and he provided us with an important insight to the current situation.

In the eyes of the remaining eight “Connecticut only” Pilots, the summer of 2006 is perhaps the culmination of 20 past years of failed Connecticut maritime policy. Again, Don Sheetz says it best when he laments, “They (CT DOT) couldn’t be bothered. Maritime issues simmered on the back burner, but now it has come back to bite them.” Beyond this, he and the guy who replaced him, Mike Eisele, will be the first to declare that the Connecticut Pilot Commissioners exist only in an advisory status. Sheetz also says the State of Connecticut rarely acted on the board’s advice during his tenure. Eisele says, albeit slowly, this is changing.

In the messy wake of a failed Pilot Apprentice Bill (S.B. 521) and the faint hope of a favorable ruling in a landmark court case (New England Shipping v. Block Island Pilots), the remaining group of aging, Connecticut Pilots are arguably being slowly squeezed out by well-organized out-of-state pilot organizations, and to the apparent indifference by the State of Connecticut. Through it all, one has to marvel at the pure genius of the person or persons who decided to certify about 50 individuals to compete in a business climate that could only support perhaps 10 full-time pilots. If today’s group of “Connecticut only” Pilots have been their own worst enemy, with friends like those in Hartford, who needs enemies?

The Winds of Change

Since 2004, Mike Eisele has been the Chairman of the Connecticut Pilot Commission (CMC). His vision of the CMC is a simple one: “The best and most cost-effective pilotage for Connecticut.” He also says that the process of benchmarking how to provide this level of service and its ultimate cost is an ongoing effort. Eisele isn’t sure that a rate increase for Connecticut Pilots is warranted. However, if it is, a lot more work has to be done to determine just how hard the pilots in the rotation are actually working and what they do with the current revenue stream that the work provides.

Eisele contends that new rates should support an apprentice system and ensure that the pilot boat operation is adequately funded. But, he has definite opinions about both of these line items. He favors an apprentice system that would closely model the Boston program, and not New York Harbor’s. By modeling Boston’s apprentice program, he says, established marine professionals can be brought up to speed more quickly, eliminating a longer, protracted period like New York’s. He was also adamant that Connecticut should not be helping to support what he calls “multiple-pilot boat operations.” As MarEx goes on-line with this segment, there are at least three different entities running pilot boats in Long Island Sound (for a total of 4 boats), with there is still yet another pilot boat to add to the equation, but its currently out of service.

Eisele is philosophical about the MOA in Long Island Sound. On one hand, he says, “In most places, pilotage involves a state run monopoly, but there are situations (he uses Alaska as an example) where pilots are allowed to compete against one another for the existing work load.” And there’s no doubt that Alaskan waters are closely regulated, particularly in the time following the EXXON VALDEZ spill. The Alaskan system works well, by most accounts. Connecticut Pilot, Tom Walker, says that in the years prior to the implementation of the MOA, competition in Long Island Sound worked well too. But, he is clearly in the minority in that opinion; at least in terms of most everyone else interviewed for the purpose of writing this article.

Vince Cashin’s recent election to the Connecticut Pilot Commission, pursuant to Section 15-13c of the General Statutes, as recently amended, is a small indication that Connecticut may be turning the corner in terms of recognizing the importance of what marine commerce can mean to the state. Pilots operating on the Connecticut side of the “joint rotation,” by simple majority vote, elected Captain Cashin to serve on the Pilot Commission. The Commission has also expanded to a total of 9 commissioners, up from 7. As a minimum, Cashin and his Connecticut-only constituents will now have a louder voice in Hartford and, more importantly, a more formal standing in the process. On the other hand, Cashin’s vote on the board will more than likely be balanced by the designation of Charles Beck, by the Connecticut DOT, to fill the other new slot. With only one vote, it also may be a case of "too little, too late" for a group of marine professionals approaching retirement before the end of the decade.

Unlike the situation faced by past CT Pilot Commissioners, the recommendations put forth by Mike Eisele and his colleagues are being given close scrutiny in Hartford. In some cases, like the recent Temporary Fuel Surcharge ($150 per shipment) granted for pilot boats due to spiraling fuel costs, these recommendations are translating into palpable policy changes. The fuel surcharge, set to expire on August 1st, is likely to be increased to $200 with an extension of the surcharge already approved. Still, the pilots claim, it doesn’t come close to covering the real costs associated with running an efficiently safe pilot boat operation, in the face of $75 per barrel for crude oil. This type of progress may or may not translate into further overhaul of pilot oversight in Connecticut. Eisele says at least Charles Beck and Rich Jaworski of the Connecticut DOT have been willing to listen, and that’s a start.

The New York Connection

Connecticut’s signatory partner in the MOA, not surprisingly, is the State of New York. A large portion of Long Island Sound and two of the five ports serviced by the MOA are in New York waters. The western end of long Island Sound, although rarely used by commercial traffic, leads into New York Harbor. It is possible, then, to take arrival at Ambrose Light and transit into Long Island Sound through New York Harbor. Curiously, however, only 3 of the 17 pilots in the MOA rotation are from the NY-NJ pool. The general administration of the MOA via the Block Island Pilots is actually handled from Rhode Island offices. With the proceeds of less than 200 actual movements (3% of the gross) going into New York coffers, the Long Island operation would seem to be a mere footnote in the Empire State’s 15,000 deep draft marine movements each year. And yet, Robert Pouch, Executive Director Board of Commissioners of Pilots for the State of New York is a highly visible and influential force in shaping MOA policy.

For New York, the MOA is a jurisdictional issue, which Pouch says grew out of pilots with various licenses (Connecticut, for example, who were doing work in New York waters). Pouch says, since Long Island Sound contains several areas governed by various statutes, the MOA made sense and was accordingly accepted by both the Connecticut and New York state legislatures. When all of the details were finally hashed out with the various administrative and legal players, existing pilots were grandfathered in, as long as they conformed to the rules of the MOA. Pouch calls the MOA, “Innovative; reflecting the commitment of the states of Connecticut and New York to benefit the pilots themselves, the users and to the best public interests.” With New York’s 3% “take” of just 30% of the total MOA traffic, it is clear that the administrative hassle probably far outweighs the economic benefits.

New York’s heavy hand in MOA policy is probably, in part, derived from the past vacuum of marine expertise from the Connecticut side of the equation. Connecticut’s Department of Transportation, until recently, had concentrated most of its attention on aviation and highway issues. The ports and its marine commerce tended to be an afterthought in policy decisions. That situation is changing and the addition of Charles Beck to the Connecticut team is a reflection of that effort, but it is still very much a work in progress. At the end of the day, Connecticut could do a lot worse than to take advice and input from the 150 years of combined experience represented by the New York Pilot Commissioners.

Robert Pouch recognizes that rates have not been adjusted in Long Island Sound in almost 23 years. And, while the MOA does not apply to pilotage rates, he says that New York Block Island Sound rates have also not been adjusted since the inception of the MOA, despite this having occurred on multiple occasions for other New York port areas. For the past three years, incremental increases in New York pilotage rates of 5%, 5%, and 4% have been enacted by the New York legislature. Meanwhile, and without approval from the Connecticut Commissioner of Transportation, Block Island Pilots continue to await the same sort of financial relief the rest have come to expect, but has not come to Long Island Sound since the first Reagan Administration.

If New York’s primary interest in MOA business is jurisdictional in nature, then it should follow that the pending outcome of a related lawsuit (New England Shipping v. Block Island Pilots) would be of real concern to Robert Pouch. After all, he is a named party in the suit, and a victory for New England Shipping in the case might open up questions as to the validity of the MOA. Not so, says Pouch. He points out that the suit came along exclusive of the MOA and that whatever might happen; the MOA would not be affected. Both states, he says, “are committed to combining the waters joined by the MOA and are building in a cooperative way to move forward.”

Big Plans: Will Connecticut have a real role in any of it?

“Connecticut only” Pilots make up almost half of the MOA rotation. New York input to the rotation centers more on expertise and jurisdictional issues than actual operational pilotage. Others, therefore, play a large and growing role in the MOA. Robert Pouch downplays the role of the Rhode Island-based Northeast Pilots in the MOA, saying they merely “provide space and administrative services” to the MOA’s Block Island Pilot Association. And, he’s right. They also provide these items using Northeast Pilot employees, resources and offices. Rhode Island pilots also make up the balance, with one exception, of the MOA participants. The Interport Pilots, an East Coast multi-port Federal Pilot group, are also a party to the MOA. While there are ten pilots in its organization, only one, Charles Jonas, is licensed by the state of Connecticut and is allowed to participate in the MOA rotation. But, more importantly, the Interport group provide two of the four pilot boats used by the Block Island MOA participants. Northeast Pilots provides another. It’s an important distinction.

The dots are easy to connect. Just as the MOA doesn’t address the issue of rates, nor does it contain any stipulations about pilot boats. Like Northeast Pilots, Interport Pilots are well organized and run a full service shop. Although, the Interport group is primarily a Federal Pilot organization, the Connecticut State license held by Charles Jonas is an important one. Eventually, it could be the lynchpin for Interport to expand fully into the highly coveted state pilotage game, while retaining their identity as a multi-port service provider. Jonas says they have hired a full-time individual to do nothing but facilitate training. Northeast Pilots and Sandy Hook all have similar arrangements. When the apprentice system comes to Long Island Sound, all of these groups will be in a good position to argue that they’re the ones who ought to do the training.

The stars may finally be aligned for real change in Long Island Sound. The long neglected maritime issues in Connecticut are finally being pushed to...