Officials hope to keep Portland Harbor dredging on schedule

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Additional support from the state of Maine, Cumberland County, or both, could allow Portland’s long-awaited harbor dredging project to begin in November.

Officials said securing approximately $13 million still remaining, with help from the state or the county, could mean the time-sensitive project would stay on schedule.

Otherwise, the process may not be able to start until 2023 while they wait to reapply and hear back about federal grant funding. 

Portland Harbor
Areas in red would be part of the dredging of Portland Harbor. The blue star marks where the material removed would be buried.(Courtesy city of Portland)

The project as a whole is estimated to cost around $31 million. Last year the cities of Portland and South Portland, along with other co-sponsors of the project, requested approximately $24 million in federal funding, according to Portland Harbor’s web page.

Local funds contributed by both cities and the Maine Department of Transportation exceed $6 million, and an additional $10 million was approved by the state if the project is unable to secure federal funding.

Portland and South Portland have applied twice for the federal Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grant, and have been denied by the U.S. Department of Transportation both times. A new application must be submitted in July, and the cities would have to wait until fall to find out if they will receive the funding.

There are many piers in Portland Harbor that haven’t been dredged in upwards of 70 years, according to the project web page.

The RAISE application explains the harbor’s piers aren’t being used to their full potential due to the amount of sediment that has built up over time. Sediment that has collected in these areas over the years has reduced harbor depths, space for ships in the harbor, and for fishing boats along wharves.

Dan Haley, chairman of the Portland Harbor Commission, said his preference is to get the project underway this year, given the time sensitivity of harbor permits – which expire after five years – and the length of the project itself.

Haley said if the state could somehow provide the remaining $13 million, perhaps with the help of the county, it could expedite the project. He said in that case, it could start as soon as November.

Before dredging takes place, a deep hole must be dug under the harbor floor to bury toxic sediment, which will later be topped by a layer of sand. The confined aquatic disposal cell is considered an environmentally safe way to dispose of dredged sediments.

Dredging can only take place between Nov. 15 and March 15, so if funding isn’t received in a timely manner, waiting to hear back about RAISE could cause further delay.

“I’m getting older, so I’d like to see this thing done before I’m done,” Haley said. 

Charles Poole, who sold Union Wharf to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute last week, agreed about the urgency of the project. 

“If we as a state said ‘we’re not going to plow our roads, we’ll get through to spring and it’ll melt,’ what would happen to all our roadways, highways, and travel?” Poole said. “It wouldn’t work.” 

Although sediment clogs the harbor more gradually, he said, it poses the same threat.

The DOT is expected to schedule a meeting with the Dredge Committee sometime this month to brief members on why their RAISE application was denied.

Bill Needelman, Portland’s waterfront coordinator, said the committee hopes to better understand what reviewers gleaned from their application, what it may have lacked, and what may need to be prioritized.

Haley called the dredging “a win-win project,” and said he has no idea why it’s taken so long to get to be approved. He said it would benefit the entire state, which is why he hopes the state and/or the county will provide the necessary funding.

Needelman said RAISE funding has been the priority, but harbor officials must remain “clear-eyed” to other options going forward.

One option Haley suggested is asking for less money in this year’s RAISE application, which might make it more likely to be accepted.

In comparison, Needelman said, “excellent projects” proposed by the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the city of Bangor were approved last year for RAISE grants of $15 million and $1.5 million respectively.

If the Dredging Committee seeks less in this year’s application, it would still need additional funds to meet the target goal, and there would still be the risk of delaying the project until fall to find out if funding is granted.

Haley said he thinks support is there from some county commissioners and state legislators. He said he has approached commissioners to discuss the topic, but nothing has come to fruition.

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