Port growth, expansion topic at MBTA Eastport meeting
Chris Gardner can’t be blamed for sounding boastful these days. By any measure, the Eastport Port Authority (Gardner is the authority’s executive director) has had its fair share of challenges to overcome. Those challenges and a considerable number of the port’s recent triumphs were the subject of Gardner’s presentation at the MBTA Eastport Meeting on June 16 at the Eastport Chowder House.
Eastport is the easternmost and deepest of Maine’s three deepwater ports. It’s also the U.S. port that is closest to Europe. In the past several years, like all U.S and European ports, Eastport has faced a drop-off in activity due to the recession. Yet in Eastport, the recession threatened to take an even greater toll on the port when the Domtar pulp mill was idled on March 5, 2009.
According to Gardner, immediately one thing became clear to him: Eastport needed to re-establish a key transportation connection to the port.
“We need to put rail through to Eastport,” said Gardner. The port commissioned a study by HNTB to look at what it would take to re-establish rail service in 2009.
Port officials also began looking for opportunities to diversify. One market that looked promising was bulk materials transport – including shipment of wood pellets – but the port would need to make a major investment in a new bulk materials handling facility before it could tap into that market.
The Maine Port Authority included Eastport in an $88.7 million TIGER grant application (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) in 2009. The U.S. Department of Transportation funded only $14 million out of $89.7 million that the Maine Port Authority had requested, and Eastport’s proposed rail transfer facility was one of the casualties.
Still, Eastport has made good use of the $2 million in federal recovery funding it was able to secure for a new bulk materials handling facility, adding another $4.5 million in state transportation bond support and additional financing secured by the Eastport Port Authority through First Bancorp.
As Gardner put it, “The turtle can’t move much, unless it sticks its neck out.”
The port broke ground on the 13-acre-plus facility earlier this year. (MBTA member T-Buck Construction is the general contractor on the project and several other MBTA members are subs). Gardner took pride in describing its 850-foot bi-directional conveyor that will not only support Maine exports of wood chips, wood pellets and aggregate materials, but can be used for inbound bulk freight, as well.
“If you need to do something big and build something different, you need to put a new tool in the box,” said Gardner.
The port director also had high praise for Skip Rogers, former Federal Marine Terminal general manager who was instrumental in launching a new market for the port – the shipment of pregnant dairy cattle to Eastern Europe. The port shipped its first shipment of 470 cows to Turkey in July. Since then, Sexing Technologies, a genetics company based in Texas, has shipped more than 1,200 head from Eastport. The cattle shipment received critical permitting from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, thanks to support from local state legislator and Maine Senate President Kevin Raye, and members of Maine’s Congressional delegation, Senator Susan Collins and Representative Mike Michaud – and Gardner was profuse in his thanks to them for helping the port get back on its feet.
The turnaround has been significant. In 2010, Eastport logged more than 400,000 tons of freight through its docks, a record. Still, Gardner has no plans to ease up in his push to continue to diversify the port and improve its infrastructure and transportation connections.
“Our next challenge? RAIL,” said Gardner. “If our state wants to get serious about rail, we need to get serious about connecting rail to our ports.”
MBTA President Randy Mace also spoke at the meeting, updating the transportation leaders at the meeting about the legislative session that was in its final weeks. He praised legislators for successfully negotiating what could have been rancorous spending cuts to reach unanimous approval of the 2012-2013 General Fund budget.
“That was no small feat,” said Mace. He also expressed concern about the Highway Fund budget just passed that allocates $230 million fewer dollars for capital investments than the previous biennium. “This may be the worst Highway Fund budget Maine has seen since the Eisenhower years,” said Mace. He said that the MBTA plans to push for passage of a robust transportation bond during the next session, and continue to work with legislative leaders to reduce the Highway Fund share of state police funding and increase General Fund support for transportation infrastructure.
Throughout the year, the MBTA hosts several regional forums addressing current issues, including transportation, the economy and trade. To learn more, please visit the Events page at www.mbtaonline.org