A motorcycle roars by a sign for the Rockland Municipal Fish Pier on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― For the last five years, Rockland has had $1.6 million set aside for major repairs needed at the city-owned fish pier, which is a central part of the midcoast community’s commercial fishing and marine industries. But no progress has been made as bids for the project have come in at prices much higher than what the city has budgeted.

The city pivoted to breaking it down into phases last year, but only received one bid at more than five times what was budgeted for that phase of the project. This year, they hope the bidding process will be different.

“We’re just trying to find a way […] to get the work done within the funds that we have,” Rockland City Manager Tom Luttrell said. “If we have to do a little bit of everything we said [we would do] and then go back for another grant in another couple of years to finish it then that’s what we will have to do.”

The bidding process began this week and city officials are hoping this latest round results in more affordable proposals for the needed dredging phase.

The Rockland Municipal Fish Pier has been owned by the city since the 1980s, according to Luttrell. The pier was managed by several private contractors until the city took over operations in the early 2000s, according to the city’s website. It serves as a home base for many of the city’s lobstermen, herring vessels, lobster buyers and bait dealers, as well as a tanker ship that provides fuel to nearby islands.

“It’s a major part of the commercial fishing [industry] in Rockland,” Rockland Harbormaster Ryan Murry said.

But after decades of rugged use, the pier is in need of an overhaul. It’s asphalt deck needs resurfacing and pilings need to be replaced. A seawall that abuts the pier also needs to be rebuilt. The electrical system needs to be brought up to date and the sea floor surrounding the pier needs to be dredged to allow vessels to better access it at low tide.

The city received about $1.6 million in both federal and state funding for the project about five years ago. An engineer working with the city on the project estimated that this pool of funding would be enough, but two rounds of project bids have exceeded the estimated costs.

An initial bid for the entire project two years ago came in at nearly $1.5 million over budget. A bid last year for the dredging aspect alone ― which the engineer estimated to cost about $400,000 ― totaled $2.1 million, according to Luttrell. The high costs reflect the amount of work companies already have on their plates, according to Luttrell.

“I think it’s just the economic times, that these companies are so busy right now,” Luttrell said.  “For them to take on a project and push people back further they have to get paid for it to make it worth their while.”

Since only one company submitted proposals for the dredging project last year, Luttrell is hopeful this second attempt at completing just the dredging aspect will attract a wider number of interested companies with a more affordable price estimate. The $2.1 million estimate was from a company in southern New England, Luttrell said, so getting crews and equipment to the site played a role in the high price of the bid.

It’s common for working waterfront infrastructure projects to cost more than anticipated and for it to take years for the projects to be funded, according to Sam Belknap, a senior community developer officer at the Island Institute.

“It can be costly for municipalities, it can be costly for the private sector, just because of the type of work that happens in these places and the robust infrastructure that needs to be in place to support that work, it can be costly,” Belknap said. “Working on the water is just inherently costly. When you have to ship in a barge to do marine construction, it adds a layer of cost that isn’t as present on land based infrastructure improvements.”

But he said the investments are crucial to ensure long-term access on Maine’s coast for working waterfront purposes. Officials in Rockland agree.

“That’s why we’re doing it, to preserve the fishing pier to survive another many years,” Luttrell said. “If we can do this correctly, and maintain it, it will be a fishing pier forever.”

The city will be accepting proposals from companies for the dredging project until Feb. 9. If the bids come in around the ballpark of $400,000 the city hopes the dredging can begin in the fall and then officials will switch gears to requesting proposals for other aspects of the project.

However, if costs continue to exceed the funding the city has available, the city may have to rethink its game plan.

“The engineer’s estimate does show that we should be able to get all the work done within the $1.6 millon and so we’re just hoping that comes true,” Luttrell said.

Still another $1.5 million could be on its way, after Sen. Susan Collins was able to include funding for the project in a draft version of the proposed 2022 Housing and Transportation Appropriations bill. However, a final version of the bill still needs to be voted on by Congress. The federal government is currently operating under a stopgap spending measure and has until Feb. 18 to pass appropriations bills or another continuing resolution.

“This investment would provide critical support for Maine’s fishing industry, as well as the Penobscot Bay island communities that are dependent on a safe, operational pier to facilitate deliveries of home heating oil, fuel for cars and vessels and supplies for all facets of life,” Collins said Thursday in a statement.