In 2011, Eastern Maine Development Corp., in partnership with Maine Maritime Academy, released a study titled “Searsport-Bangor Logistics Corridor Project.” The 78-page document explores growth opportunities in the 30-mile corridor between Bangor, Maine’s third largest city and an important transportation hub for the state, and Searsport. Two years later, not much has changed in terms of transportation needs, but a new opportunity to revive this project is upon us.
With the change of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway to the Central Maine and Quebec Railway, comes new management, potentially new investment from the railroad and the chance to realize the Searsport-Bangor Logistics Corridor. What I propose is that an “inland port” be constructed in Bangor, adjacent to I-95, that would work jointly with Mack Point at Searsport.
The idea of an inland port is an effort to aggregate both import and export traffic from a port, and domestically based land traffic. The idea uses the working waterfront as a receiving area of international traffic — in this case, containerized traffic — and rather than sorting it on site, moving it to the inland facility to be sorted and transported. Given space and capacity restraints at Searsport, this model would be ideal. Further, with direct rail access from Central Maine and Quebec Railway at both facilities, it would be relatively painless to load containers directly from ships to rail cars to be moved 30 miles north to the inland facility.
Presently for Maine, shippers that wish to use intermodal transportation — moving containerized goods between ships, rails and trucks — must use railway connections in southern Maine, Massachusetts or New Brunswick, Canada. Even the facilities in southern Maine are either too small or so close to Massachusetts facilities that it is just as easy to send containers there. However, for freight east of Augusta, it would be more beneficial to source containers, the chassis that carry containers and truck drivers locally in Maine. No such facility exists in central Maine that could support such a competitive option.
For such a port to work, it would require two things: volume and service. The initial volume would have to rely on loads that are too small to fit into a boxcar, which is generally equal to three truck loads, but could fit into a single, domestic 53-foot shipping container. This gives greater flexibility to shippers, which either don’t have direct rail access, have time-sensitive freight that can’t wait to be loaded onto traditional railcars or don’t produce enough volume to make traditional rail service viable. Essentially, this allows all shippers, whether they have two trucks a week or 20, to have access to more competitive options.
A competitive service would have to be provided by the Central Maine and Quebec Railway to the Canadian Pacific Railway, which has a network that could rival that of other transportation options in New England to reach markets such as Chicago in less than three days. Reliable service that is cost-competitive with services based outside the state would certainly give options to shippers in Maine that struggle to make connections. Furthermore, the Bangor facility could be a staging area to store loads and deliver them as needed.
Such a competitive option is important to Maine not just for current shippers, but for future growth. Maine has promoted a three-port strategy, and with Portland blossoming on its own, Searsport and Eastport now require attention. It makes sense to develop Searsport, with greater transportation options, as a priority.
Assuming the proposed $12 million dredging project takes place, Searsport would have a fighting chance. For there to be new manufacturing in Maine, the state needs competitive options to import and export products. Maine currently lags behind the rest of the country in terms of effective transportation options that would make it a competitive place to do business. As such, Maine is largely off the radar for new developments because of transportation constraints.
This idea of a modern and efficient logistics hub in Bangor linked with Searsport can work. The time to think about this project is now, as all the opportunities are ripe. In time, such a facility could also serve to handle automobile distribution, windmill components and other heavy machinery coming into and leaving the state of Maine.
We must give the shippers who are already based in Maine the tools to remain competitive and grow along with their competitors.
Charles Hastings has an MBA from the University of Maine and is a graduate student in the University of Maine’s School of Policy and International Affairs. He is an independent rail analyst for Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports.