Searsport harbor dredging long overdue, vital to Maine trade, transportation commissioner tells economic development group

Aerial view of Sears Island and Mack Point in Searsport, Maine.
Courtesy of R.W. Estela
Aerial view of Sears Island and Mack Point in Searsport, Maine.
Posted Jan. 29, 2014, at 2:07 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Searsport’s harbor needs to be deeper if Maine is going to tap into growing trade potential along the East Coast, the state’s transportation commissioner and other officials said Wednesday.

Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt; Jim Theriault, vice president of materials handling for Sprague Energy and Capt. David Gelinas of the Penobscot Bay Pilots Association highlighted the project during a meeting of the Action Committee of 50 at Hollywood Casino on Wednesday morning. AC50 is a nonprofit economic development corporation geared toward improving trade and logistics in Maine as a way of attracting and retaining jobs in the region.

Searsport’s last major harbor project was completed in 1964. It increased the depth of the channel 35 feet, allowing for large commercial cargo vessels to dock at Mack Point to offload or receive goods. Maine’s second-busiest commercial shipping channel hasn’t been touched since.

“The ships have gotten bigger in the past 50 years,” Bernhardt said. “I don’t see this project as being any different than upgrading and maintaining our state’s highways and bridges.”

The proposed $12 million dredging project would increase the depth of the channel by 5 feet and expand the channel’s dimensions. In all about 929,000 cubic yards of material would be removed from the harbor, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is planning the project.

Currently, if a large ship wants to dock in Searsport, it has to wait for high tide or come with a lighter load so it doesn’t sit as low in the water. Both options increase transportation costs and affect the bottom lines of companies who choose to ship through Maine.

“We need this project now for the ships that are coming now,” he said. While the project would improve safety for the ships the port currently sees, it also would make trips feasible for larger ships with deeper drafts.

Opponents to the dredging project have expressed concerns about stirring up toxins in the silt and that the materials pulled out of the channel might be disposed of too close to the mouth of the Passagassawakeag River.

The project goes before the Civil Works Review Board this summer.

The Army Corps of Engineers says that in relation to other dredging projects across the country, this one is small. For example, Boston is seeking approval for a $300 million project to dredge its harbor. That is expected to take three or four years and will include underwater drilling and blasting.

The Searsport dredging project carries implications for the rail industry as well, as train tracks tie the port to much of Maine, the Canadian provinces and the Midwest. Bernhardt said the state is closely watching Maine, Montreal and Atlantic Railway’s bankruptcy sale to Fortress Investment Group.

Fortress has significant capital and, according to Bernhardt, a “commitment to make this work.”

Fortress has said little about its plans for MM&A’s rail network, and Bernhardt said he hopes those plans won’t involve abandoning the tracks in the future. To this point, there’s been no indication that is part of Fortress’ plan, he said.

Investments in railway improvements will be vital to Maine’s trade and industry future, according to Bernhardt. Dredging the port will bring more goods for Maine’s rail industry to transport and ease its recent struggles, he added.

More information on the dredging proposal, including the feasability report and environmental assessment, may be found at http://www.nae.usace.army.mil/Missions/ProjectsTopics/Searsport.aspx.

 

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