PORTLAND, Maine — The city, its neighbor across the Fore River and a coalition of private interests have tried and failed three times over 20 years to secure federal grant money for a long-needed Portland Harbor dredging project.
Now, with the state’s backing, they’re trying a different approach.
Instead of going it alone, the remaining funds needed for the proposed $34 million project is now tucked inside a larger federal grant request backed by the state. The full proposal seeks funding for three other Maine waterfront schemes as well, including offshore wind infrastructure in Searsport, a fish pier in Eastport and refrigerated cargo upgrades at Portland’s International Marine Terminal.
The Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Port Authority submitted the combined federal application at the end of April.
The federal Port Infrastructure Development Program grant application is seeking $7 million for the harbor dredging project. Local stakeholders have already secured the rest of the $27 million needed.
The application also seeks a combined $32.6 million for the other projects. Out of the four individual proposals, the dredging has the lowest price tag in the grant application.
Altogether, the $39.6 million in grant funding will be used for $74.7 million in waterfront projects. The balance — $35.1 million — has already been secured from other sources.
It’s a smart move for Portland Harbor, said William Needleman, Portland’s waterfront coordinator who worked on all four Portland Harbor dredging grant proposals.
“For a federal grant, they’re always going to be looking for the state’s number one or number two priorities and as a local project that was a massive bar for us to jump,” Needleman said. “By being part of the state’s three-port strategy, our project is a state priority and that just puts us in a much better place for success.”
This approach makes sense to Maine Director of Ports and Marine Transportation Chris Mayo as well, given the three ports are the state’s primary commercial waterfronts.
“MDOT has been committed to seeing the Portland dredge project through for quite some time with planning support as well as financial commitment,” Mayo said.
Portland Harbor hasn’t been dredged in more than 70 years. Runoff and storm surges have deposited so much sediment materials between wharves, some waterfront slips off Commercial Street become unusable at low tide. Across the harbor, in South Portland, silted-up sections are beginning to affect pleasure boat marina operations.
The proposed dredging project will remove around 224,000 cubic yards of sediment from between nearly every marine wharf on both sides of the harbor, including the commercial barge landing at Portland’s East End.
Toxic contaminants in the silt, left behind by centuries of waterfront industry, mean dredged material cannot just be hauled up and just dumped at sea. It’s contaminated enough to pose a threat to local fisheries, including lobsters.
Instead, a special, multimillion dollar “aquatic disposal cell” must be designed and built. It will sequester the dredged materials away from the rest of Portland Harbor’s ecosystem.
Also in the grant request is $14.2 million for a $17.8 million upgrade to Portland’s International Marine Terminal’s refrigerated container capacity. Currently, it can store 136 refrigerated containers. However, within the next five years, Eimskip, the Icelandic shipping company occupying the facility, projects they will need storage for at least 420 such containers.
“This project proposes the construction of reefer racks, steel frames that house stairs,
lighting, and electrical equipment to plug in the reefers while they are stacked in storage and waiting to be unloaded or transported,” reads the grant application.
Additionally, the application seeks $8 million for a $10 million project creating a dedicated offshore wind port facility in Searsport.
The grant request cites “a need to fabricate floating [offshore wind] turbine foundations which are massive” and “these floating foundations can be hundreds of feet wide and weigh
thousands of tons.”
The fourth and final part of the state’s grant application seeks $10.3 million for a $12.9 million upgrade extending the existing breakwater at Eastport while also upgrading its fish pier.
“Eastport is a critical economic infrastructure for the local economy,” reads the funds request. “The proposed project will ensure that the port remains viable and can be used for modest commercial operation and benefits the long-standing fishing heritage of the adjacent tribal community.”
Needleman said he’s not sure exactly when he’ll hear if the grand money is awarded but he thinks it’ll probably be over the summer.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll hear in July or August,” he said.