All quiet on the Portland waterfront


photo/The Fuge
photo/The Fuge

All quiet on the Portland waterfront
Maine’s only container port suspends operations

By Colin Woodard 

A few summers ago, the International Marine Terminal on Commercial Street was a hive of activity. Twice a day, the 12,000-ton Scotia Prince loaded and unloaded cars, trucks and people as it made its rounds between Portland and Nova Scotia. Ocean-going container ships called several times a month en route to Halifax.

Now it’s deserted.

Maine’s only container port suspended operations on June 29, following the bankruptcy of one of the pulp and paper companies on which it depended. Red Shield Environmental, which purchased the old Georgia-Pacific mill in Old Town in 2006, had been the port’s largest customer, shipping 10,000 metric tons of wood pulp each month.

The city-owned terminal was served by a single shipping firm, Columbia Coastal Transport, of Liberty Corner, N.J. Columbia Coastal operated a twice-monthly barge service to New York City, where containers were transferred to ships bound for Europe and Asia. The company suspended the service two days after Red Shield announced it was idling its Old Town mill as it goes into bankruptcy protection. 

“If the mill comes back, we’ll probably come back,” said Kevin Mack, Columbia Coastal’s vice president for business development. “This pullback could be avoided if we were able to get more people in Maine to support [barge service].”

Part of the problem, according to Mack, is that incoming barges generally run empty, reflecting the fact few Maine firms import large quantities of goods from the outside world. Those that do move goods from New York and other ports by truck. “Even with the mill working, we have been unable to get people in Maine to support the thing. I’m shocked nobody wants to try it.”

In theory, moving containers by water is a no-brainer. A 2007 study commissioned by the National Waterways Foundation found that, on average, U.S. barges can move a ton of cargo 28 percent further with a gallon of fuel than railroads, 73 percent further than trucks, and with far less pollution than either.

“You use less fuel, there are less emissions, there’s less congestion on the roads, and there’s less maintenance required on the roads,” said John Henshaw, director of the Maine Port Authority, in Augusta. “But cost is the 800-pound gorilla.”

Portland’s challenge has been to drum up sufficient cargo volume to allow barges to operate cheaply and more frequently. L.L. Bean imports large numbers of containers from Asia every week, but they have continued do so by rail (from Vancouver, B.C., to Auburn) or truck (from New York), because it’s cheaper and more timely than Columbia’s barges.

“We had a number of conversations with them, but from what we were quoted, it wasn’t competitive with trucks,” said Tim Cahill, L.L. Bean’s director of transportation and logistics, who added he expects that may change as trucking costs increase. “Much like people trying to find alternative ways to heat their homes, we have to find alternative ways of moving our products.”

As The Bollard reported in its June issue [see “Chump Change”], part of the rationale for building the $20 million-plus Ocean Gateway terminal was to move passenger ferry operations away from the IMT to make way for a projected doubling in container traffic between 1998 and 2008. Instead, the IMT has seen only modest growth, and its reliance on Maine’s struggling pulp-and-paper industry has now left the facility idle. 

Prospects also look dim for Ocean Gateway. Other than a handful of visits by one small cruise ship this summer, its use is limited to hosting the high-speed CAT ferry, which runs between Portland, Bar Harbor, and Nova Scotia. Earlier this summer, the government of Nova Scotia agreed to provide up to $4.4 million in assistance to Bay Ferries, the Canadian company that owns the CAT, to keep the service going this year. High fuel prices and a ridership decrease of about 50,000 passengers were cited as the main threats to the business, according to a provincial official quoted by The Chronicle Herald.          

“In the long term, I think [the IMT] is going to be an important asset to maintain,” said Portland Mayor Ed Suslovic. “I don’t think diesel fuel will be coming down.”

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