Portland, South Portland again seek federal funds to dredge harbor

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City officials are making another attempt to secure $24 million in federal funding to dredge Portland Harbor.

The project is in conjunction with the city of South Portland.

While City Council approval is not needed for the work to take place, its endorsement is required as part of the grant application process. Councilors unanimously approved the action Monday, June 7, without discussion. 

The cities last September were denied funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $1 billion Better Utilizing Investments Leveraging Development, or BUILD, program to fund most of the estimated $30 million cost of dredging piers, wharves, and marinas, plus construction of 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 in May 2020. Dredging would create more berthing area for lobster boats at all tidal stages. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Now they’re seeking funds from the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity Transportation Discretionary Grant program, also known as RAISE, for the public and private projects.

According to a city memo, dredging vessel areas will provide safe and full tide access to berthing, loading, and marine support services, and will also remove and dispose of sediment impacted by historic industrial activities and pollution.   

The Maine Department of Transportation will also match up to $3 million from Portland Harbor property owners who benefit from the dredging, including the city of Portland itself. Property owner contributions will come from new tipping fees on cubic yards of sediment dredged, estimated at $12.50 per cubic yard.

The city estimates the tipping fees will amount to $650,000 and the city’s financial commitment would be allocated from future waterfront tax increment financing funds.

The failed dredging proposal of 2020 would have removed 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.

Dredging will also impact around 1.25 acres of eelgrass, although the Portland Harbor Commission had planned to continue with eelgrass mitigation regardless of the dredging plans. This mitigation requires moorings in eelgrass beds to be converted to conservation moorings whenever mooring ownership turns over. Conservation moorings do not scrape the ocean floor and rip up aquatic plants.

Both BUILD and RAISE are Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, discretionary grants. RAISE replaced BUILD this year, with the latter having awarded over $8.9 billion in grants to projects in the United States and Puerto Rico since 2009. The maximum grant for a RAISE project is $25 million, and no more than $100 million can be awarded to a single state.