BANGOR, Maine — Maine’s top transportation official called container shipping the future of global commerce and said the state should aggressively expand its port and rail capabilities if it wants to have a role in that future.
Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Cole spoke Wednesday at a Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce event about the potential for a container port facility in Searsport, in concert with other investments in railroads, highways and border facilities. He also said Bangor’s location and infrastructure would make the city a prime intermodal location for shipping commerce to larger markets.
As the state and the country try to climb out of a recession, Cole said, the time is now to start thinking about some of these investments.
“You don’t wait until the recession is over or it will be too late,” he said.
Cole, Maine’s transportation commissioner since 2003, oversees 2,400 employees and a biennial budget of more than $1 billion and is responsible for planning, building and maintaining the state’s transportation system. That includes highways, bridges, mass transit, railroads, ferries and bicycle and pedestrian trails.
On Wednesday, Cole spent most of his time talking about how transportation can be an economic engine for Maine. Containers — giant steel boxes that carry freight — are used to move goods all over the world. The containers move on cargo ships or barges, on flatbed railroad cars and on trucks. Maine currently has a small role in the region’s container shipping industry, Cole said, but it could expand. Projections indicate that container shipping will increase by 180 percent by 2024.
Searsport, one of Maine’s three deepwater ports but the only one with enough capacity to handle significant international freight, is in the best position to attract a container shipping company, according to Cole. The other deepwater ports are in Eastport and Portland.
“We’re marketing Searsport to the world,” Cole said, adding that Maine’s congressional delegation is working to secure funding to deepen a nearby channel even further.
A recent consensus agreement for Sears Island, which is immediately offshore from Searsport and has been the subject of years of controversy, would facilitate progress, Cole said. The agreement allows about 600 acres of the island to be placed in permanent conservation while the remaining 340 acres would be available for port development.
As Searsport expands, Cole said, “inland ports” with strong railroad infrastructure such as Bangor and Auburn would benefit. Maine’s rail system has the capacity to allow double stacking of containers, which saves on transportation costs and is much more cost-effective than trucking. Cole said highway congestion by the year 2020 will make highway freight movement even more difficult.
Those who attended the Bangor Chamber event to hear Cole’s thoughts were impressed but not necessarily convinced that action is imminent. Dennis Marble, executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, said the same discussion has been had for years and he asked Cole what would convince Maine to get off the fence.
“Partnering,” Cole said. “We need the public and private sectors to work together on this.”
The transportation commissioner said a recent idea by Cianbro chairman Peter Vigue to privately fund and build an East-West highway is the perfect example of potential partnerships, although that idea has not materialized.
Cole said for Searsport to be successful in expanding its port, private investment is of paramount importance.