The next governor and Legislature would do well to remember that Maine’s three port transportation strategy has yet to come to full fruition. The strategy, which dates to the late 1970s, aimed to develop world-class freight ports in Portland, Searsport and Eastport. Portland is successful, though some observers say growth is thwarted by limited space. Eastport has seen steady growth, but it may not be able to achieve its full potential without a nearby railroad link.
The port with the greatest potential for growth is Searsport, which has both a deep water, protected anchorage and a nearby rail link. The niche Sears Island might fill is container shipping.
Transportation Commissioner David Cole recently spoke about the prospects for international container shipping, putting an optimistic spin on what Maine offers in this realm.
Containers — steel boxes that can be moved from ship to railroad car to truck — are the transportation gold standard. They allow disparate products from a destination to be grouped together, so that auto parts, fabric, ceramic plates and compact discs may all be packed in one Asian port and shipped to Maine where multiple businesses can get their orders.
Transporting goods by ship also is the most cost-effective and carbon-friendly mode.
The port facility in Searsport is based on the mainland at Mack Point, where a $20 million private-public venture upgraded a 100-year-old docking facility. DOT has committed to fully expanding Mack Point before looking to develop port facilities on adjacent Sears Island. The state has tried to market the 340 acres set aside for port facilities, but has yet to see any interest from private developers.
Opponents of a container port on Sears Island are right to be skeptical about how such a facility would help Maine’s economy. Other than paper, Maine does not have a large value-added export sector. It is more likely that a port would be used to import products or materials. Those products and materials might be then shipped by rail to the Midwest or others parts of New England. Opponents argue that a bigger, better port would not boost the economy.
Still, the question port supporters pose is compelling — does Maine want to be at the dead end of shipping routes, or a vital link along the line? Also, the availability of products and materials can spur the development of some Maine businesses, which can add value and sell them within the New England or Northeastern markets. And a container could spur an export economy.
The new state government should remain mindful of Searsport as an option and consider marketing the port again. As Commissioner Cole said, “You don’t wait until the recession is over or it will be too late.”