NORWALK — Imagine a Connecticut where commuters can stop relying on congested highways and aging rail lines and can instead opt for an eco-friendly ferry ride to get them from New Haven to Stamford, or from Stamford to Manhattan.
Seems unlikely? Not to Norwalk business owner Bob Kunkel.
Kunkel made headlines in April when he unveiled the country’s first hybrid cargo vessel, a 65-foot, battery-powered catamaran named “Harbor Harvest.”
The innovative shipping vessel was built to ship locally produced dairy, fish and produce between Connecticut and New York. At the time, Kunkel claimed it would cut a 9- to 12-hour shipping trip between Connecticut and Long Island down to an hour.
But with his shipping vessel set to go into service in September, Kunkel is looking to take that same shipping principle and apply it to transporting people instead of wine or food.
“A while ago, Gov. (Dannel) Malloy told us that we have two highways: one was a parking lot and the other was a museum. Well we’re hear today to tell that, despite that statement, there’s a third. What we’re looking to do is create a third highway across Long Island Sound,” Kunkel said in a recent presentation to Norwalk’s Harbor Management Commission.
The time is ripe for such eco-friendly alternatives to transportation, Kunkel said. The tri-state area is dealing with crumbling infrastructure and the planet is facing the consequences of climate change. So, Kunkel claims, why not start investing in a solution that addresses both issues?
“What we’re trying to do is take congestion off the highway and reduce emissions by doing that,” he said.
Kunkel said he is eyeing two separate ferry systems along Long Island Sound: one that runs parallel to Metro-North, from New Haven down to Stamford, and a second that runs from Stamford to the Financial District in Manhattan.
The ferry system, which Kunkel admits is still many years in the future, would run about 15 to 20 minutes longer than Metro-North, according to his estimates.
The Harbor Harvest shipping vessel, which is also the name of Kunkel’s farm-to-table deli located at 7 Cove Ave. in Norwalk, has been applauded by state and federal officials. A second vessel is currently being built thanks to $1.8 million in funding from the U.S. Maritime Administration.
The grant is part of the administration’s new Marine Highway initiative designed to reduce traffic congestion, lower gas emissions caused by the trucking industry and bolster marine transportation as an alternative for shippers.
Kunkel said he hopes to make Norwalk Harbor the base of operations for Harbor Harvest and all its future projects. Ideally, he said he could leverage the federal and state support behind the project to secure funding for further dredging in the harbor.
“We all know Norwalk Harbor is a gem for recreational boaters, but maybe this could open it up to more commercial uses,” Kunkel said.
While he’s had his eyes on some South Norwalk locations for his headquarters, Kunkel said he’s also been in discussions with Gov. Ned Lamont about the possibility of using Manresa Island as his home base. Manresa, a onetime power plant, has been made a primary point of redevelopment by the city in recent years.
“We think this can be a good thing for the harbor,” Kunkel said.
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