Portland Harbor dredging fails to receive federal grant

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The cities of Portland and South Portland and the Portland Harbor Commission learned last week that their application for a federal grant to dredge the harbor was not selected for funding this year. 

The cities sought $24 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $1 billion Better Utilizing Investments Leveraging Development, or BUILD, program to fund the estimated $30 million project to dredge piers, wharves, and marinas, and to build a confined aquatic disposal cell for the contaminated materials. 

A view of the area between Widgery and Union wharves in Portland during an ebbing tide May 29. Dredging would create more berthing area for lobster boats at all tidal stages. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

The dredging would remove approximately 244,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Fore River to address the twin problems of loss of berthing space and underlying legacy contamination from the era of heavy industry on the harbor. The CAD cell – a pit in the ocean floor where contaminated material would be covered with sand — would significantly reduce the cost of disposal compared to other methods. 

The project has been years in the making and has the support of the two cities, the state Department of Transportation, private pier owners, fishermen, and civic and environmental groups. The state Department of Transportation agreed to contribute $3 million and another $3 million would come from the cities and pier owners in tipping fees based on the amount of material dredged. 

Bill Mann, the South Portland economic development director, said in a city of Portland press release that the dredging team is  “exploring all possibilities and sources of funding to move this project forward.”

South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli said in the release that the project will continue to be a priority.

“The cities of South Portland and Portland have a long track record of working collaboratively on projects that benefit both communities and the region,” he said.  “When you include the participation of the Harbor Commission, state, our federal delegation, working side by side this is an example of what a public-private partnership can and should be.” 

The dredging project would also impact approximately 1 1/4 acres of eelgrass. Portland Harbor Commission Chairman Dan Haley said that despite the grant denial, the commission is still moving forward with its eelgrass mitigation plan, which requires moorings in eelgrass beds to be converted to conservation moorings whenever mooring ownership turns over. 

Unlike traditional block-and-chain moorings, conservation moorings do not scrape the ocean bottom and rip up the aquatic plants.

The BUILD program originated in 2009 as Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, discretionary grants, with the aim of improving transportation infrastructure and stimulating economic recovery during the 2008 recession. It has been funded each year with between $474 million and $1.5 billion; this year it had $1 billion to distribute. 

The program is “heavily oversubscribed,” according to a 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan government agency, which found that from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2018 application requests totaled 24 times the money available. 

This year, the Department of Transportation received 656 applications requesting nearly $9.2 billion, a DOT spokesman told Engineering News-Record. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao made the announcement Wednesday, Sept. 16, that 70 projects had been selected in 44 states. 

Selection criteria include safety, economic competitiveness, quality of life, state of good repair, environmental sustainability, innovation, and partnerships. Congress has capped the maximum grant amount at $25 million and the total grant amount for an individual state at $100 million.

Two projects in Maine received a total of $45 million.

The $40.5-million replacement of the Ticonic Bridge connecting Waterville and Winslow over the Kennebec River was one of six projects nationally to receive maximum funding. And a $29.5 million project to replace or rehabilitate bridges in Litchfield, Stonington, Greenbush, Southport, Milo, and Bridgewater was awarded $20 million. 

The Congressional Research Service report noted that the Obama Administration distributed grants relatively evenly across transportation modes and population areas, but that changed in 2017 when the Trump Administration announced rural projects would be prioritized. 

The following year 69 percent of the grant funds went to rural areas, a higher proportion than ever before in the history of the program. Congress subsequently capped the share of funding that can go to rural areas at 50 percent. 

The report also found that road projects, including highways and bridges, are being awarded a higher proportion of funding compared to other modes of transportation than they had in the past. From 2009-2016, roads received 33 percent of the funding while transit, rail, bike/pedestrian, and port/maritime made up the other two thirds; in 2017, road projects jumped to 71 percent of the funding granted.  

This year, the DOT spokesman told ENR, road projects increased again, to 77 percent of the projects awarded with 54 awards. Transit accounted for 11 percent, or eight of the selected projects. Maritime projects dropped to 7 percent, with five grantees. The remainder were two rail projects and one aviation project. 

Ports projects have consistently made up a small percentage of BUILD/TIGER grant funding, at 10 percent in 2009-2016 and 11 percent in 2017, the CRS report found. 

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said in the city press release that the dredging project is crucial to the city’s economic future. 

“While this project is not about building roads or bridges,” Jennings said, “it is a critical transportation need for the continuation of our historic working waterfront.”  

Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman said that while he and the team members who worked on the application are disappointed, they plan to reapply next year. 

“The collaboration leading to our application and the quality of the material presented were both excellent,” he said in the press release. “… The team strongly believes in the project and we have no doubts as to its needs and merits.”

Freelance writer Jordan Bailey is a former Phoenix staff writer.