Moving Maine by moving goods

Posted June 23, 2012, at 2:11 p.m.

A new Maine Maritime Academy report looks at the feasibility of developing a Searsport-to-Bangor logistics corridor, networking rail, boat, road and air to move goods into and out of Maine.

Past studies have looked at one piece of the region, or only certain aspects of transportation — say rail over air, said Bill DeWitt, dean of MMA’s Loeb-Sullivan Business School. DeWitt’s masters-level global logistics and maritime management class undertook the study for Eastern Maine Development Corp., which has been looking at the concept of such a corridor for several years and moved the idea forward after last fall’s Action Committee of 50 Trade Logistics Forum.

“The study came back with a rousing affirmation that, in fact, there is a viability for logistics-based movement of goods in this corridor,” said DeWitt.

The basic question the study sought to answer was whether the logistics assets of the Searsport-Bangor corridor would be developed to support a “prosperous, competitive” Eastern and Northern Maine economy.

The researchers interviewed people from a number of Maine companies that ship product out of state and globally now, talked with transportation officials, shipping experts and visited other areas, including the port of Los Angeles. In Maine, they concentrated on companies which worked with perishable and time-sensitive products (which would benefit from efficient shipping), industrial and consumer products, logistics providers (shippers, etc.) and forest products.

Assets they looked at included the rail lines in the region, the port of Searsport, Bangor International Airport, the roads infrastructure and more.

“We are sitting on these assets. If strategically addressed and appropriately invested in, I think we can bring manufacturing back to Maine; we can really look at value-added production activities that will result in some of the rural communities being able to retain and grow some of that manufacturing base,” said Michael Aube, president of EMDC.

The MMA class laid out key potential developments that the region could capitalize on to boost the use of the infrastructure in the corridor. The first was the likely future use of the seaport for export of forestry biomass, particularly given the plans to develop a torrefied wood plant in the Millinocket region.

It also saw an upside from the expansion of the Panama Canal, allowing larger ships to more easily access the East Coast ports. Congestion may clog some of the seaboard’s bigger ports, the report suggested, allowing Searsport to capture more European-U.S. cargo ship traffic. And more big ships coming through the canal may mean more offloading onto smaller ships for East Coast ports, which may boost traffic to Searsport.

And more offloading at Searsport means more cargo making its way across Maine by rail and road. That could boost regular shipping service, which would benefit Maine companies, suggested DeWitt.

Another finding was that greater collaboration and communication among shippers and companies with product to ship was needed.

“Maine has valuable products with demand from both domestic and international markets. The state also has an established logistics network that is not being utilized to its full capacity,” researchers wrote in the report. “A majority of Maine’s products are being shipped using out-of-state infrastructure. Yet conversely, the local logistics partners are struggling to find sufficient volume to compete with other logistics hubs, and the in-state infrastructure is unable to grow and improve.”

A lot of companies in Maine essentially go it alone, seeking their own shipping solutions instead of working together to fill containers, trucks and other transport vessels and more efficiently pool resources — saving money, potentially.

“Sometimes the world gets unnecessarily complex and fragmented. Pulling it back to a simple framework has some merit,” said DeWitt.

The report makes a number of suggestions, but primary is identifying a person who can act as a leader and advocate for the corridor concept and lead a team of people from different parts of the equation to make it happen.

“That’s the key — leadership. What’s the vision, and how do we move these things forward — and truly be market driven?” said Aube. “How do we make the economic argument that this does, in fact, make sense.”

Investment also must be made in various parts of the infrastructure, the report noted.

“The current rail network connecting Searsport to Bangor and the rest of Maine with the United States is in unexceptional condition,” the researchers noted.

Overall investment in rail and, possibly, development of an intermodal facility near arterial roadways is needed, they wrote. Additionally, the current road conditions in the area are “not well suited to a large increase in truck traffic,” the report found.

The port of Searsport is in a position to be more heavily used, they wrote, but could use additional cargo handling equipment, including a conveyer loading system.

And on the air front, the report noted that BIA has runways that can handle any plane today, as well as the personnel and systems in place to handle needs. However, it lacks a significant route network to other cities.

“If [BIA] established more regular flights to major global hubs, it would attract more companies,” the report noted. “It is also vital that warehouses be built at the airport and that they be temperature- controlled.”

Cargo at BIA is limited now, said Tony Caruso, interim airport director, though the airport does have the infrastructure, personnel and training to be available for freight handling. Even before this study came out, he said, airport officials were talking about getting everyone in the shipping/transportation network together to discuss who ships what, where it goes, how often it goes out — in hopes of fostering more coordination and building more business.

The MMA report, said Caruso, provided a strong, comprehensive view of what assets exist and where potential lies.

“If we can get companies, shippers, freight-forwards to work together in a collective effort, there [are] ways to improve the economics in that corridor,” he said. “Really, it’s just optimizing volumes in and out of that region.”

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