PORTLAND, Maine — Portland city officials joined state legislators and waterfront leaders Monday morning to tout a range of bond-funded improvements they said could revive the port’s role as a global hub for the transportation of goods.
“I don’t know of a mile-long stretch of Maine that has a greater economic impact than the Portland waterfront,” said state Rep. Erik Jorgensen, D-Portland, at a Monday news conference at the city’s Ocean Gateway facility.
As part of a $100 million transportation bond approved by Maine voters at the polls earlier this month, three significant projects will be funded on the Portland waterfront.
About $3 million is earmarked for dredging between Portland’s piers, alleviating a sediment buildup that has gone unabated for more than two decades and has left much of the piers inaccessible to larger ships at low tides. Another $1 million will be spent on badly needed upgrades to the Portland Fish Exchange, where 95 percent of the state’s groundfish catch is auctioned, according to General Manager Bert Jongerden.
Finally, approximately $9 million will be used to acquire property to expand the footprint of the International Marine Terminal and connect the facility to a nearby Pan Am railroad line, a link that will allow cargo brought to Portland by ships to be transported by train to the South and Midwest.
“These are three critical projects for our working waterfront,” state Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, told reporters Monday.
Alfond said he regularly hears from Maine business leaders that transportation costs remain too high in a state where many still must rely on trucks to move goods. With the additional rail access from the International Marine Terminal, he said, Maine businesses can distribute products to a global market by sea and a nationwide market by rail from a single site.
Additionally, Portland Economic Development Director Gregory Mitchell said the city will become a more attractive spot for European — and potentially soon Asian — companies to move goods to the United States because of its connection to the country’s rail network. The Icelandic shipping company Eimskip this year named Portland’s International Marine Terminal its U.S. headquarters, providing the city with a long-awaited permanent shipping presence.
“This is about connecting by rail to markets west all the way through North America,” Mitchell said. “The ability to connect rail to cargo shipping creates a hub for both import and export.”
The fish exchange upgrades include a new roof, overhead doors and lighting, auction program software and a conveyor system for sanitizing fish containers and equipment, Jongerden told reporters. Much of the work will replace portions of the building that have been in place since it opened in 1987, he said, meaning the renovations are badly overdue.
Similarly, Portland pier owners and waterfront officials have been desperate for a plan to dredge between the piers for between 20 and 25 years, Union Wharf owner Charlie Poole said.
Poole said loaded boats cannot leave slips at low tide because the sediment buildup is so high — and water so shallow, as a result. The federal channel is dredged regularly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but local or state authorities are responsible for clearing the sediment closer to shore.
“This is a day we’ve been waiting for for a long time,” Poole said.
According to the Maine Port Authority, the Portland waterfront accounts for 3,700 jobs and generates more than $101 million in annual income. The authority also reported in 2010 that as much as 200,000 cubic yards of material needs to be dug out from between the piers to allow larger vessels to dock there.
In addition to the three bond-funded projects, Mayor Michael Brennan and others Monday morning touted parallel projects the city is seeking to find and allocate funding for, including Ocean Gateway upgrades necessary to welcome the return of ferry service to Nova Scotia next May and the establishment of an intermodal transportation hub at Thompson’s Point, where a $105-million private development project has been proposed.
Another project under discussion would create a passenger rail connection between Portland and Auburn, City Councilor David Marshall told reporters.