PORTLAND, Maine — Maine Port Authority officials say the development of an innovative new hybrid vessel, cheaper than large freighters but more versatile than barges, could be the key to restoring container cargo service in the state’s largest port.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, is bringing the country’s top maritime official to Portland’s International Marine Terminal on Friday, three days after New York-based American Feeder Lines announced it is discontinuing its container shipping service that tied Portland to Halifax.

The Maine Port Authority leases the terminal from the city of Portland. The loss of container service has dealt a blow to the agency’s efforts to convince Maine importers and exporters that they can count on the port as a way to move products and materials around the world.

Further, the authority is in the midst of major capital upgrades at the terminal — $6 million in federal grant-funded improvements is taking place during the current fiscal year — and agency leaders must revive shipping service at the site in order for the overhaul to be justified. In fiscal year 2011, the terminal ran at a loss of nearly $464,000.

But Pingree and Maine Port Authority Executive Director John Henshaw say they believe there are opportunities to rebuild container shipping in Portland. Among them is the proposed development of an Articulated Tug Barge adapted to handle shipping containers.

The tug boat-barge hybrid already is used in the petroleum trade, but would need a series of design modifications to allow it to carry the 40-foot-long rectangular steel shipping containers importers and exporters are accustomed to using.

Henshaw told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday such a vessel has been preliminarily designed under a joint venture by the U.S. Maritime Administration and Defense Department, and Pingree hopes to convince federal Maritime Administrator David Matsuda that it’s worth an additional allocation of about $350,000 to finish the designs.

“One thing that is going to make it easier to develop service to ports like Portland is a more efficient ship design that can be built in local yards at a low cost to make short sea shipping more economical,” Pingree said in a statement. “I’d like to see the Maritime Administration make the design of that ship a reality. It could go a long way to getting that service up and running again.”

The hybrid ships would cost between $30 million and $50 million to construct, compared to the $70 million to $125 million price tag associated with large container ships. Henshaw said such vessels could be built by Washburn & Doughty Associates of East Boothbay, as the shipyard has experience with previous versions of the Articulated Tug Barges.

Henshaw said the U.S. Department of Transportation has approved a Maine Port Authority project to develop a coastal shipping route from Portland to the port of New York, and the new barges would be key to breathing life into the channel.

“Because you’re traveling between two U.S. ports, you’re required to have a U.S.-flagged, U.S.-crewed vessel, and there aren’t many of those in existence,” Henshaw said. “Building a ship is an expensive proposition. We don’t have many commercial shipyards left in the country, and they haven’t built commercial container vessels in a long time.”

The lower cost Articulated Tug Barges, Henshaw said, would be easier to build new in America, helping create a U.S. cargo fleet to work the proposed Portland-to-New York corridor.

“One thing we learned from our shippers, many of them said, ‘Halifax is great, but if you can get us to New York, that’s a game changer,’” he said.

“There are a number of Maine companies that send dozens of trucks to New York every day,” Pingree said in a statement. “They are just some of the companies that would benefit from regular container service between New York and Portland.”

Henshaw said that like tugboats and barges, Articulated Tug Barges would have smaller crews than large container ships, but would have “ship-like qualities” that made them less vulnerable to high seas or poor weather than their riparian component boats.

“We’ve heard from a number of our shippers that they don’t believe a ‘tug-and-tow’ operation is reliable enough to put their cargo on,” he said. “It couldn’t operate in some weather conditions, for instance.”

The containerized tug-barge hybrid design currently on the table would have a capacity of 450 TEUs, or Twenty-foot Equivalent Units, the standard measure for container capacity.

He said American Feeder Lines had been serving Portland with 750-TEU container ships.

Henshaw said that at the time of American Feeder Lines’ departure, Maine importers and exporters were starting to warm up to the idea of using container shipping to move their products and materials instead of the highways. He maintained Thursday that the International Marine Terminal could see 20,000 TEUs of business annually if given time to develop a consistent shipping service.

“We feel there’s enough cargo in the state of Maine to justify service both to Halifax and to New York,” he said. “We’re certainly not giving up on finding a new Halifax service. It’s not one or the other; we’re going to continue on with all of them to the extent that we’re able.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.